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More on Ethical Pharmaceuticals

I’ve written more about drugs and pharmaceutical companies in 1 week then in the entire previous 2 1/2 years I’ve been blogging. I guess going through a family health problem intensified the topic for me a tad, and if it bores some of you this mini-crusade I’m on about Big Pharma, you can always skip the story 🙂 I can tell you though if I ever found out there was or had been a promising new drug to treat Alzheimer’s that had been shelved or stopped due to some drug firm thinking they’d not make money off of it.. the posts you see now would pale by comparison to what would be written then. People should not be dying because of a bottom line. Anyhow, I digress. Here are some things that I’d like to talk about today:

Joseph had a blogpost up yesterday where he editorialized on this story he saw at Vive Le Canada about something called “ethical pharmaceuticals”. It involves something I think is marvelous – a new way and concept for developing drugs to save lives of people who normally wouldn’t be able to afford it:

The approach is called “ethical pharmaceuticals,” and it was unveiled on January 2 by Sunil Shaunak, professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College, and Steve Brocchini of the London School of Pharmacy… Their team… have developed a method of making small but significant changes to the molecular structure of existing drugs, thereby transforming them into new products, circumventing the long-term patents used by the corporate giants of Big Pharma to keep prices – and profits – high. This will give the worlds poorest and most vulnerable people access to life-saving medicines – now priced out of reach – for mere pennies.

Joseph is all uncomfortable about it, being the classic small-l liberal that he is, but I say kudos to these people. I look at it this way; that medicine is going to get to people that normally wouldn’t be able to afford it. So theoretically, Big Pharma isn’t losing any customers out of this, because they cant lose customers they never would have had in the 1st place.

These folks aren’t just talking about a new design of drug.. they’re using a new business model as well, as well as bringing something related to what I call “the common good” and for “the public interest”:

Shaunak’s team is proposing a new model for the pharmaceutical business. The patent of the transformed drug they have developed is held by non-profit Imperial University. And because their methods are hundreds of millions dollars cheaper than the mammoth development costs of the big pharmaceutical companies – whose spending on marketing and advertising often dwarfs their funding of scientific research – Shaunak and his colleagues can market their vital medicines for infectious diseases at near-giveaway levels, yet still stay in business. How so? By forgoing the profit motive as the ultimate value of their work.

“People in academic medicine have a choice,” Shaunak told an Imperial College journal. “They can use their ideas and creativity to make large sums of money for small numbers of people, or they can look outwards to the global community and make affordable treatments for common diseases.”

You would not be surprised to know I was literally cheering at reading this quote and this piece.

An example that I could use here for potential; I had a conversation with a blogging friend of mine who is very much involved in programs for developing countries and who also has family involved in the topic. She has some sympathy to my points of view (though not in complete agreement), and she mentioned how angry she is that the Big Pharma companies will develop millions and millions on drugs like Viagara, but almost nothing on anti-retroviral drugs that are used against primarily HIV, because they see more profit in it. Apparently, making sure North Americans have good sex drive is more important then making sure Third World People at least have a fighting chance against HIV. (That last sentence is me editorializing, not her). Think of what these people and companies/institutions like them could do to help alleviate a lot of people suffering that shouldn’t be.

An example of this is what are they doing right now. They’ve actually developed a variation of Interferon which will fight Hepatitis-C, and they talk of doing it for other drugs to fight other diseases as well, and its all LEGAL:

The first drug developed by the team is a new version of interferon, the main treatment for Hepatitis C, a debilitating disease that afflicts 200 million people worldwide. Yet only 30 million can afford the medicine…Shaunak and Brocchini invented a new way attaching the molecules – from the inside, not the outside – that went around the patent restrictions and produced a medicine that “appears to be as effective as the existing product,” according to Nature, the leading scientific journal. Their novel methods could also be adapted to extend the effectiveness of “drugs for other conditions such as HIV,” at a fraction of current costs.

Oh, and the other reason the cost will be kept down? No need to try to lobby politicians or use marketing campaigns to convince everyone yours is the greatest new drug since Aspirin:

Big Pharma says it costs an average of $800 million to create a new drug; but without the need to produce ever-expanding profits for shareholders or use glitzy ad campaigns to push their pills – or lay out the vast political patronage that Big Pharma dispenses each year to keep its favored politicians sweet – Shaunak says his team can now develop essential medicines for only a few million dollars each.

If I could give out a a Humanitarian award right now.. I’d be giving it to these folks. My apologies to my Liberal blogging companions who must think I sound like Stephen Lewis at this point, but I feel very strongly about this topic. People should not be dying or suffering due to a drug that should normally be available but isn’t due to its smaller profit margin.

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4 comments to More on Ethical Pharmaceuticals

  • Apologies Joseph! I did not mean ALL libloggers. There are obviously a few exceptions. 😉

  • lrC

    Commercial enterprises tend to follow lines of profitable return, so here is one prediction: big pharmaceutical companies will spend more time and money developing and producing lifestyle-enhancing drugs and less time and money developing and producing life-saving drugs.

    Altering molecular structures can alter effects (different chemicals, after all), so here is another prediction: eventually an unforeseen and harmful side-effect of one drug or another will result in a class-action suit which bankrupts the institutions backing Shaunak (and imitators) putting a serious, albeit temporary, damper on a bunch of other useful research.

  • Just because I have a severely truncated personal life doesn’t mean I’m a sterile liblogger.

    Big Pharma says it costs an average of $800 million to create a new drug; but without the need to produce ever-expanding profits for shareholders or use glitzy ad campaigns to push their pills – or lay out the vast political patronage that Big Pharma dispenses each year to keep its favored politicians sweet – Shaunak says his team can now develop essential medicines for only a few million dollars each.

    This sort of thinking is extremely dangerous because it grossly misrepresents primary research. What happens when Shaunak has to develop a new drug, only he doesn’t have an existing one to modify? How much will it cost then?

  • I had a nice long comment, and the webpage ate it, so grrrr. Trying again…

    Keep up the great writing, don’t apologize for writing an actual real story, instead of the usual boring sterile liblogger stuff. *Sigh* Some of them seem to have no family or personal lives, which makes them a tough read.

    This is an issue voters actually care about. You are more right than you know, seriously.

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