Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Directed Medical Funding

Very often, we are confronted by a request to donate money to a cause. The most popular secular charities focus on medical research. However, I am curious how the money is being used. I also find President Obama’s comments during his joint session with congress about finding “a cure for cancer” disturbing. While I know these are noble things, medical research is a lot more random and undirected than people might be led to believe from these groups and statements.

I should point out that I majored in Pharmacy for my first four years of college. I also have several friends who have done medical research. While I’m no expert, I have a pretty good overall view of how it all works.

Most medical research is like blind hunting; researchers fire in the general direction of any sound they hear. Sometimes researchers hit something on the first shot, finding a useful drug after exploring a small group of compounds from a family suspected of providing the desired medical benefit. However, as with blind hunting, often what you aim for is not what you hit (which isn’t always a bad thing).

I have heard people, especially comedians, joke that America has no priorities because we developed Viagra. What these people don’t realize is that Viagra was developed by a lab researching blood-pressure medication, and that the test subjects pointed out that they were getting erections as a side effect. Viagra is still currently used for some heart conditions and to cure altitude sickness.

This is why all research is good. Many medical advances come about when fundamental advances in our knowledge of biology are discovered. I have no doubt that anti-aging research could bring about a cure for baldness, or that an HIV/AIDS researcher may cure the common cold. These would not be failures, even though the research has not achieved its desired goal.

When NASA was tasked with putting a man on the moon, many people began dreaming of the future: flying cars, everyone living past 100, metallic clothing, and lights on everything (maybe the last one is accurate). While we didn’t achieve those goals, I would argue the advances from the space program are even better than that: water and pool purification systems, scratch resistant lenses, enriched baby food, athletic shoe in-soles, anything using a satellite (cell phones, GPS, some TV), solar energy, calculators, light-weight fireman air tanks, etc.

If all of that comes from putting a man on the moon, one begins to wonder what might come from our mapping of the human genome or from an increased understanding of viruses. It will be fundamental research like this that drives innovation. This research is the expedition into the unknown where we hear those first, faint sounds, before we blindly start firing. However, we must realize the complexity of it all and avoid statements such as the one made by President Obama regarding cancer. There will likely never be a “cure for cancer.”

We already have treatments for most forms of cancer that have very high success rates when caught early. We must focus on new treatments for all the various diseases, ailments, and conditions we have, giving doctors more tools. We can’t claim to seek a cure for all forms of cancer, which has vastly different causes; some are likely caused by “carcinogens,” or chemicals which alter cells and can potentially make them cancerous; some cancers have been recently shown to be caused by viruses, as with cervical cancer’s link to HPV.

It’ll be up to researchers to isolate the compounds and see what they do when introduced into the human body. In the process, I wouldn’t be surprised if they discover a chemical that makes people talk backwards or smell like popcorn. It will then be up to the marketing department on how to sell those. (The backwards talking pill should be called Dysphonix… I’m not sure how to use popcorn as a Greek or Latin root.)

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