Medical breakthrough could change global politics
Date: Thursday, January 18 2007
By Chris Floyd t r u t h o u t | UK Correspondent
Tuesday 16 January 2007
The Biochemistry of Hope
... a quiet announcement at London's Hammersmith Hospital at the turning of the new year heralded a breakthrough that has the potential to be one of the most transformative developments ever seen in global affairs: a positive change on a par with - or even surpassing - the world-altering malignancies of war, greed and strife.
But this boon could be strangled in its cradle by the vast corporate interests threatened by its radical new approach to both health care and business.
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, the Guardian reports. Their team of scientists in India and the UK, financed by the prestigious Wellcome with technical assistance from the UK government, 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 world's poorest and most vulnerable people access to life-saving medicines - now priced out of reach - for mere pennies.
But the breakthrough is not merely biochemical. 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."
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. That leaves the rest to face the chronic liver disease and premature death that the illness inflicts. The cost of Hepatitis C treatment in the UK is approximately $13,000 per patient per year, New Scientist reports. Nor can a cheaper version of the existing interferon be made, because Big Pharma players Hoffman-La Roche and Schering Plough hold patents not only on the drug but also on the standard way of adding the special molecules needed to enhance its performance.
So 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, Shaunak told New Scientist. 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.