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The Valley of Death

Posted Dec 02 2008 3:08am

Sharon Begley wrote for Newsweek Magazine an article entitled Where Are the Cures? Scientists call the gulf between a biomedical discovery and new treatment the “ valley of death.” This has been a topic about which I have written several times. As a relative newcomer to the world of scientific research, my journey has been somewhat perplexing and always disconcerting. Every day articles, web stories, and scientific papers cross my desk touting the amazing discoveries that are being made at the basic research level. When I query my insiders, however, they point out that these discoveries very rarely ever get to the public for their care and treatment.

Some of the reasons behind this gap in medical science lead back to a broken system with inappropriate incentives locked firmly into place. How do we get the basic discoveries to be translated and moved into actual treatments?

Why are so few of the discoveries making their way to both treatments and cures? It is because our system of NIH-sponsored science is set up to discover things; plain and simple. Once the discovery is made, articles can be written, which is the sought after reward in academia since these publications lead to more grants from the NIH, and so the circle goes round and round.


Image Credit: Corbis

The obstacles to translational research in which the studies actually move from the scientist’s bench to the patient’s bedside are so intense that they are referred to in some areas of the scientific community as the “valley of death.” According to Begley’s article, “The valley of death is why many promising discoveries-genes linked to cancer and Parkinson’s disease; biochemical pathways that ravage neurons in Lou Gehrig’s disease-never move forward.”

The author challenges the incoming Obama administration and Congress to take a look at this daunting dilemma and to begin to revamp our biomedical research system by creating what Richard Boxer, a urologist at the University of Miami, and Lou Weisbach, a Chicago entrepreneur, call a “ Center for Cures” at the NIH. Interestingly enough, the model that they endorse is exactly what was created here in Windber where multidisciplinary teams of biologists, proteomic and genomic scientists, technicians, and biomedical informatics specialists work together with Walter Reed Army Medical Center to move a discovery to an actual cure.

Of course, with the cuts made to the NIH funds, creating anything new that is unfunded could take away from basic research, and limit hopes for these cure discoveries. The article explains that while the NIH budget was doubling, new drug approvals fell from 53 in 1996 to 18 in 2006. What’s wrong with this picture? Twice the money, less than half the discoveries.

The sad case, however, is that even those organizations that try to establish these new world order cure centers are not funded by the NIH because of this fundamental design to enhance only basic research. The article ends with this: “I’d be willing to put up with potholes in exchange for a new administration spending serious money to take the discoveries taxpayers have paid for and turn them into cures.”

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