Friday, February 11, 2011

Wrong-headed for Feds to Fund and Find New Drugs?

Terry Rosell, DMin
Rosemary Flanigan Chair
February 11, 2011

I recently received an email from someone concerned after reading an article in the New York Times. (Article here.)

Quoting the article, "The Obama administration has become so concerned about the slowing pace of new drugs coming out of the pharmaceutical industry that officials have decided to start a billion-dollar government drug development center to help create medicines."

The article goes on to say that this initiative by NIH director Francis Collins will necessitate restructuring/"downgrading" of one of the 27 institutes and centers, namely, the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), which will become by October the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

This marks a shift from the NIH's traditional focus on basic research, says the Times. But Collins reportedly is frustrated that corporate pharma is not investing enough in development of new drugs that were promised as a result of his Human Genome Project. Most of the concerns I read (on the "Complaint Blog" set up in reaction to this move click here) are raised by current grant recipients of the NCRR, especially those with CTSA (Clinical and Translational Science Award) money.

They worry that the non-pharmaceutical dimensions of their research, or those aimed at community engagement, will get lost in a drug-focused NCATS. Other institutions still hoping to receive CTSA grants likely worry that the NCRR funding source will dry up or be siphoned off to the new initiative. Legitimate worry.

I'm wondering if there are other, moral reasons to lodge complaints about Collins' plan. Is it wrong-headed for the feds to fund and find new drugs? Or ought this be no more controversial than any other federal reallocation plan in which some vested interests get divested while others finally hit the jackpot? Is there any valid reason to think, as one complainant writes, that "the N.I.H. is not likely to be very good at drug discovery, so why are they doing this?”

Others note that it is moving far too quickly from idea to implementation, with too little opportunity for public comment.The NYT journalist notes that "Dr. Collins has been predicting for years that gene sequencing will lead to a vast array of new treatments, but years of effort and tens of billions of dollars in financing by drug makers in gene-related research has largely been a bust."

Hence their hesitation to invest there.

So is this NIH action motivated more by political p.r. than scientific-therapeutic interests? One aimed at shoring up the director's pet project and reputation, perhaps? Is it a public shot in the arm to renew interest and excitement in the promises of genomic research?

Motives matter oftentimes, but do they here? If NIH funding via a new NCATS were to produce, finally, some new pharmaceutical breakthrough, would anyone be complaining?Yet there is something about this plan that creates in me a sense of (ethical?) unease. Somebody help me locate the source, please. Thanks.



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