I hope you had a chance to read Gina Kolata's "Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe" in yesterday's New York Times.
With limited dollars, Kolata reports, researchers are finding it difficult to get the riskier--and potentially more promising--studies funded. I am often reminded that, for many, much of the drug-research and development process seems shrouded in mystery. I've read research that says most people believe that new medicines are developed solely by government agencies or through research grants made by these agencies.
In fact, the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for bringing most new medicines to market. According to an (admittedly somewhat dated--but I'm looking for more recent numbers) NIH report, 91% of the most-prescribed medicines were developed solely by the pharmaceutical industry, while only 9% were developed in part through NIH-funded research.* As well, between 2000-2006, the pharmaceutical industry spent $43 billion on R&D, while the NIH's total operating appropriations were $28 billion.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the pharmaceutical industry play vital and complementary roles in advancing the scientific knowledge and understanding of diseases. Most of the government's work is in early research activities that may not lead to specific products, but builds on the scientific knowledge that can aid the development of new medicines.
Kolata's article brought two things to mind for me. First, we have not gone nearly far enough in the fight against cancer. There is still so much work to do, and patients are relying on us to step it up. Second, we're all in this together. Private/public/academic collaboration is crucial if we are going to beat cancer and other diseases that have eluded us so far.
* National Institutes of Health. "A Plan to Ensure Taxpayer Interests are Protected." NIH Response to the Conference Report Request for a Plan to Ensure Taxpayers' Interests are Protected, July 2001.