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Academia (vs. Industry)

One More On Basic Research and the Clinic

OK, one more on this topic before moving on to other things for a while. The Bedside Matters medblog has a better roundup of the reactions to my post than I could have done myself. And “Encephalon” there also has one of the longer replies I’ve seen to my initial post, worth reading in full.
I wanted to address a few of the issues that it raises. Encephalon says:
“Dr. Lowe makes his point with the sort of persuasive skill one suspects is borne of practice – I shouldn’t be surprised if he has had to make his case to the unbelieving on a very regular basis. And that case is this: that pharmaceutical companies do in fact spend enormous sums of money in developing the basic science breakthroughs first made in academic labs to the point where meaningful therapeutic products (ie, ‘$800 mil’ pills) can be held in the palms of our doctors’ hands, ready to be dispensed to the next ailing patient.
So far as that claim goes, I don’t think any reasonably informed individual would dispute it. . .”

It tickles me to be called “Doctor” by someone with a medical degree. On the flip side, though, it’s a nearly infallible sign of personality problems when a PhD insists on the honorific. And I appreciate the compliment, but it’s only fairly recently that I’ve had to defend this point at all; I didn’t even know it was a matter of debate. The thing is, you’d expect that a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine would be a “reasonably informed individual”, wouldn’t you? I don’t think we can take anything for granted here. . .
He then spends a lot of time on the next point:
“It is a myth, and I would argue a more prevalent one than the myth that Big Pharma simply leaches off government-funded research, that the NIH does little to bring scientific breakthroughs to the bedside (once they have made them at the bench). . .Using arguably one of the best (databases) we’ve got (the NIH’s ClinicalTrials.gov**) we get the following figures: of the 15,466 trials currently in the database, 8008 are registered as sponsored by NIH, 380 by ‘other federal agency’, 4656 by ‘University/Organization’, and 2422 by Industry. While I am suspicious that the designation ‘university/organization’ is not wholly accurate, and may represent funding from diverse sources, and while the clinical trials in the registry are by no stretch of the imagination only pharmaceutical studies, the 8388 recent trials sponsored by Federal agencies are no negligeable matter. I think Dr. Lowe will agree.””
I agree that NIH has a real role in clinical trials, but I don’t think it’s a large as these figures would make you think. Clinicaltrials.gov, since it’s an NIH initiative, is sure to include everything with NIH funding, but there are many industry studies that have never shown up there. (And I share the scepticism about the “University” designation.) When the Grand Clinical Trial Registry finally gets going, in whatever form it takes, we can get a better idea of what’s going on. I also think that if we could somehow compare the size and expense of these various trials, the Pharma share would loom larger than the absolute number of trials would indicate.
Encephalon goes on to worry that I’m denigrating basic research: “The impression a lay person would get reading Dr. Lowe’s ‘How it really works’ is that basic science work done by the NIH is really quite trivial. I don’t think he meant this. . .”
Believe me, I certainly didn’t. Without basic biological studies, there would be nothing for us to get our teeth into in the drug industry. If we had to do them all ourselves, the cost of the drugs we make would be vastly greater than it is now. It’s like the joking arguments that chemist and pharmacologists have in industry: “Hey, you guys wouldn’t have anything to work on if it weren’t for us chemists!” “Well, you’d never know if anything worked if it weren’t for us, y’know!” Academia and industry are like that: we need each other.