Monday, February 15, 2016

Rebooting medical research - the world needs Canada.

My mother had a bottle of thalidomide on the shelf.

It was her first pregnancy and she was sick. Thalidomide was the hot new treatment for morning sickness. It wasn’t approved in the US, but Canada was ahead of the curve and a keen young obstetrician gave her the meds. 

Being a nurse she was suspicious of physicians, so she never took them and my arms and legs developed normally. I don’t know why thalidomide helped with morning sickness, but it was quite toxic to the developing fetus. 

Thalidomide had a second life though. Over the past 50 years it’s come to be used for a complication of Leprosy, for early multiple myeloma and for a few other conditions. Research has led to development of several related drugs.

It all took a long time though. There’s not much money to be made from off-patent medications, so there’s no funding from drug companies. There’s not a lot of support from traditional government sources either — there’s nothing exciting or sexy about this kind of costly, slow, research. Individual clinicians might do small trials on their own initiative, but unless the results are extremely positive nothing more will come of them. Worse, those small trials are increasingly hard to do in an era of humane and ethical research. Perhaps these are some of the reasons medical process has slowed since the early 1980s.

There are lots of odd drugs out there that have accumulated small research results but languish for lack of further investigation. Cimetidine was popular in the 1980s for ulcer disease, but in it’s off-patent life it’s been used for interstitial cystitis, persistent calcific tendinitis, animal studies of the innate immune system, eosinophilic fasciitis, warts, herpes simplex cold sores and doubtless other unpublished experiments. It probably doesn’t work for warts, but does it work for any of these conditions? We don’t know. There’s no money for the boring and expensive animal model development and clinical trials.

There are many drugs like cimetidine. They show up as “possible treatments” in the extensive literature around diseases we can’t fix. They are shots in the dark often based on biological plausibility, chance observations, and unreplicated animal experiments.

We can do better than this.

And by “we” I mean the world, not the United States. Our peculiar strain of anti-government and anti-science politics makes it hard for the US to play a leadership role in rebooting practical medical research. Other nations are in a better place to lead. Canada, the UK, Germany and the Nordics come to mind, but perhaps also Brazil, Israel, and India.

Canada, the world needs you.

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