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Can "Big Pharma" have a heart?

Are the world’s major drugs companies only in it for the money, or might they, just occasionally, be persuaded to do research that brings them no profit but saves lives?

We all know that undertaking medical research and producing treatments is a hugely expensive business, and most people will appreciate that drugs companies must be allowed to make profits at a level that will enable them to carry out and sponsor such research. However, it is also very clear that the companies are making billions that are enriching their shareholders and their chief executives, vastly in excess of what is being ploughed back into research.

The net result seems to be that the drugs companies will spend huge amounts on finding cures that benefit large numbers of people, and which will therefore generate the biggest profits, but are quite happy to ignore rare conditions and diseases that are devastating to their sufferers but who, because there are relatively few of them, can safely be ignored.

A few years ago The Times newspaper highlighted the case of a boy who suffered from Batten disease. This is a fatal condition, caused by a genetic malformation, in which the victim begins life normally enough but, at the age of four or five, will start having seizures that look initially like epileptic fits. The child will gradually start losing all their functions, becoming blind, unable to walk, talk or feed themselves, then dying before they reach their teenage years.

If this condition affected a large number of children, one would have expected that research into it would have been undertaken many years ago and effective treatments developed by now. However, Batten disease is extremely rare, with fewer than 30 cases at any one time in the whole of the United Kingdom. There is therefore nothing to be gained by any drugs company that decided to invest in research. Even if an effective treatment were to be found, it is probable that it would be so expensive that the National Health Service would be unable to afford to provide it.

It must also be borne in mind that, even if research started today, no cure that was discovered would be any use for children currently suffering from Batten disease. These projects can take much longer to produce results than the lifespan of an affected child.

Even so, it would be a wonderful gesture on the part of a major drugs company were it to sacrifice some of its vast profits by getting to work on developing drugs for very rare conditions such as Batten disease, in the knowledge that there is no money to be made by so doing.

Or is it the case that only money talks in a capitalist world? One certain thing is that the boy mentioned by The Times was soon unable to talk at all.


What do you think?

12 Points

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  1. A new drug can cost as much as a billion dollars to bring to market. Based on that, who funds the research?

    Orphan drugs as they are called is a sad reality. But if it costs a company a billion dollars to bring the drug to the market who pays?

    The reality is that the “first world” needs to pay more than the “third world” pays. It really isn’t a question it is a simple reality of money.

    • I don’t think that anyone in senior management in a large drugs company is particularly hard up. These companies earn megabucks from the drugs they sell and they use some pretty shady practices in the process – such as not testing them properly and hiking the prices whenever it suits them.

      In other words, they can easily afford to fund research into drugs that will only have a limited market. Should a family member of a drugs company boss fall victim to a rare disease, I wonder how long it will take for attitudes to change?

      • They, the execs of large pharma are not hard up.

        If you can show me, one group, in the world that is forced to take a large risk and is not compensated for that I would be impressed.

        The military is the only one outside of the business.

        1 billion is for successful drugs. There may have been 8 or 9 drugs that failed at the same time.

        Do I think CEO’s across the board are overpaid, yes.
        Do I think big pharma is a problem? No

        • I would recommend the book “Bad Pharma” by Ben Goldacre. This is 400 pages of well-supported argument that exposes a lot of the shenanigans within the industry, particularly over their shady practices regarding drugs trials.

          • i actually designed systems for two of the biggest pharma in the world. There are lots of things going on that aren’t good.

            But, in fairness to them, they are the only companies on earth that are required by law to keep 180 days of voice conversations at all times. The cost of that is pretty high.

            I suspect the disadvantage of the blame game is, no matter how much blame we pass out there is always something left to keep.

  2. It is crazy what is going on with Big Pharma. Most companies have to be sued and taken to court before any changes are made. And then sometimes it never changes. Such a rip off and many lose their lives as they cannot afford their medication.

    • That is appalling. At least in the UK all medicines are free of charge to the patient (apart from a modest prescription charge) as long as they are supported by the NHS. However, not all medicines are supported, and if there is one that is very expensive the patient will have huge problems getting hold of it.

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