With the success of the Philae lander, the European Space Agency has effectively landed on a comet traveling through space 300 million miles from Earth. The data it collects may help answer questions about Earth’s history and even the origin of life. Such major accomplishments are commendable, but rare in an international climate in which funding for research—including medicine—is perpetually on the chopping block. If public funding has dried up, the obvious alternative is the private sector. This is the recent trend in space exploration that has yielded such conspicuous failures as NASA’s outsourced Antares rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.ith the success of the Philae lander, the European Space Agency has effectively landed on a comet traveling through space 300 million miles from Earth. The data it collects may help answer questions about Earth’s history and even the origin of life. Such major accomplishments are commendable, but rare in an international climate in which funding for research—including medicine—is perpetually on the chopping block.
Back on solid ground, the pharmaceutical industry is a more comprehensive, long-running example of how science and engineering can fall short when they are left exclusively to private for-profit entities. Big Pharma companies like Merck and Pfizer are as wealthy as ever. But the innovation that the industry was built on—the discovery of new drugs—has stalled in the last few decades.
Writing for The New York Times, Dan Hurley pointed the finger at “target-based” drug research. Under this model, investigators find the genetic origin of a disease in the form of a mutation and then develop a drug to specifically target the disease. This method has been prevalent in pharmaceutical research and development since the genomic revolution of the 90s.
The problem is that this method has been a spectacular failure. “A study published last year … found that only 17 of 50 novel drugs approved by the FDA between 1999 and 2008 came from target-based research,” Hurley said. According to chemist Derek Lowe, “Bayer committed half a billion dollars into human genome research, and they got nothing for it.”
Hurley advocated for the “old-fashioned” method of drug research, “Making tentative hypotheses and then going through a long tinkering process of trial and error to find something that works,” he said.
This sounds like a case for applied research over pure research. After all, pharmacologists are not unlike engineers. They build molecules for a specific function like NASA engineers build rockets. But in reality, this is not the case. It is a case of companies jumping on a bandwagon hoping it will lead to untold riches.
Genomic drug research is more limited than originally thought because it grossly oversimplifies the biology of disease. Despite this, Big Pharma may have gone all-in on the research because the decision-makers in companies are businesspeople, not scientists. They can latch onto a buzzword like “targeted therapy” without understanding it, especially when it promises a short-term explosion in profits. This is a key difference from public and academic institutions. Such shortsighted tunnel vision is antithetical to good research, which respects the complexity of a system and is invested in the long-term.
Profiteering can limit the scope of research in other ways. Diseases are prioritized in terms of moneymaking potential. Most of the highest-earning drugs treat chronic conditions; everything from diabetes to depression to erectile dysfunction.
In the face of emerging drug-resistant strains of bacteria, there is a dire need for novel antibiotics. This need is not being met. I have worked in natural products research directed towards finding new antibiotic compounds––a field composed of small labs that are often woefully underfunded. The pharmaceutical industry isn’t filling this void, nor would it be expected to. Antibiotics aren’t profitable.
To be fair, many drugs that have made Big Pharma companies rich have also helped bring human health into the modern era. Private, for-profit research has its place. But its place is not as a substitute for public funding of nonprofit institutions.