Cancer Cure Not Being Funded
The Science of Cancer: Big Science vs. Big Pharma
By Maya Sokolovski, Staff Writer
Several years ago, University of Alberta researchers made the discovery of a lifetime: a colourless, odourless and readily-available compound that may be the ultimate cure for cancer. Researched since 2007, this compound, dichloroacetate (or DCA), has the fortune (and paradoxical misfortune) of being very inexpensive to produce.
“Companies are interested in producing a cure for cancer. However, they’re not interested in that drug being cheap.”
The compound went through clinical trials back in May of 2010 and is now tentatively being used on an off-patent basis. Since DCA cannot be patented, pharmaceutical companies do not stand to make a profit from it. Therein lies the rub; if Big Pharma cannot make a profit from a given medication, there is no incentive to market it or prepare it for widespread and public use. As a result, DCA is now used on a basis different from other cancer treatments. By individuals who somehow gained access to the compound, by doctors who administer it as a non-approved drug, or by scientists who test it in the lab.
Think of it as Bottled Water 2.0; try selling it high when everybody knows you can buy it ridiculously low.
The study and testing of this particular cancer drug runs primarily on donations rather than on capital. There is no “Dichlorathine Rx” sold in pill form at your local drugstore, and there may never be such a thing unless enough philanthropists and individual donors step in.
I spoke briefly with Dmitry, a biochemistry graduate student at York University last week to try and gain some insight into this puzzling but urgent issue. He had a fair bit to say about the business of pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), though he was not aware of DCA at the time of our interview.
“Companies are interested in producing a cure for cancer. However, they’re not interested in that drug being cheap,” he says.
“There is a certain antibiotic that was proven to be effective against cancer, but it did not get any research funding because it’s already on the market for about $2 a pack. It’s very difficult to take a lot of money for something that costs so little.”
According to Dmitry’s calculations, it takes on average 15 to 20 years to move a given drug from the lab to the drugstore, and all the costs associated with its development, production and marketing can reach up to $1 billion. Make no mistake; it’s big business.
“There are simply no investors for this class of drugs. New products that appear must be expensive in order to reimburse and return all the money that was initially invested and expended in previous, unsuccessful R&D attempts. So there has to be profit; if there is no profit, then there are more expenditures than profits, nobody invests in anything, and medical progress comes to a halt.”
Dmitry maintains that pharmaceutical companies run on principles similar to those in any other kind of business; to create a new product, it is necessary to take on a certain amount of risk, to invest in an idea and set up the conditions and environment for the project to come to fruition. Capital needed to invest in a standard laboratory for the research and development of a given drug can run up to the millions of dollars just for equipment and space. Add on maintenance and material expenses, among other things, and it becomes understandable why Big Pharma is so interested in making a profit.