Bright and Dark

I read an article today that simultaneously made me very happy and very depressed. The article is this: “Iacocca picks a likely winner — for diabetes patients,” from the Boston Globe. It’s about how a former Chrysler executive is bankrolling research that has reversed type 1 diabetes in a first-phase human trial. An auto industry exec is involved because

when MGH [Mass General Hospital] went to the pharmaceutical industry looking for funding to research a pancreas-regenerating drug, “everyone said, ‘You’re reversing the disease. How are we going to make money?’ ’’

I am really excited, because Dr. Denise Faustman’s research team is planning the next phase of human trials, which means that in three years’ time there could be an established cure for type 1 diabetes. Just in time, too: I’m so skinny I’ve been having a hard time finding places to put my insulin pump’s infusion sets! And the curing agent is a vaccine that we’ve known about for 80 years, so there’s no question as to its safety – only its effectiveness – and it should be readily available!

(When I first heard about this research, I was a senior in high school and I immediately thought of the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Doctor McCoy completely restores a woman’s kidney function by having her pop a single pill. “What is this, the dark ages?” he proclaimed.)

But reading, in print, the attitude of the pharmaceutical industry puts a huge damper on that feeling. These corporations don’t want to cure my disease, because a cure would dry up one of their tens of thousands of reliable revenue streams and they would make slightly smaller profits. Hey, pharmaceutical companies, just in case you were wondering: you’re assholes.

This situation seems, to me, to be a clear-cut case of how unchecked corporations can act against a society’s best interests. As an experimentalist, I feel comfortable stating that capitalism, in general, is an economic system that is very successful at distributing resources and maintaining high standards of living. However, we have here a situation where an industry would rather spend its time and resources treating a potentially curable disease. This course of action wastes time, effort, and money, and causes pain and suffering of many individuals. Now, if you are both sufficiently pro-business and sufficiently heartless, you might argue that the treatment of diabetes is an industry that sustains a good number of companies and jobs – and that it is at least possible that the better course of action for American society is for me to keep on suffering so that those jobs and industries are maintained. It strikes me that we might as well get together a fund to pay those people to bang rocks together. My point in erecting that straw man is this: if pharmaceutical companies cure this one disease, then all the people working on treating that disease can push their efforts toward something more worthwhile. It’s not like the world has any shortage of disease.

I believe that situations like this are where government can play a major positive role. It’s not in a corporation or industry’s best interest to do something that would be in society’s or individuals’ best interests, and so an agency like the NIH could step in and provide funding for higher-risk, higher-reward research like Dr. Faustman’s. (Well, actually, in her case it seems like it’s just high-reward.) This is the reason why we have the NSF. It’s the reason why we have national laboratories. It’s why we have the NIF. It’s why we have NASA. So that, as a society, we can progress.

There’s another excellent reason for government to be a player in this area, too. Medicine is an arena populated by corporations and helpless victims. I can’t exactly vote with my feet and take my business elsewhere to get a cure for diabetes – I need insulin or a cure or I die. I don’t have any bargaining power over these companies. Similarly, people who go into emergency rooms aren’t scanning a McDonald’s-style menu of medical procedures, evaluating costs with what they would like to have – they are watching doctors and nurses bustle around them telling them what is about to happen next, and rooting for those doctors and nurses. Then, when it’s all over, the corporations step in to tell patients how much money they owe. There needs to be another force here, once that works for patients.

By the way, you can donate directly to Dr. Faustman’s lab at this link.

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