Is it worth donating money to find the cure for diseases?

Source: Flickr. Image by Raymond Bryson

Yes, I know, the question sounds plain stupid. Before jumping to the comment section to yell at me, keep reading.

Of course it’s worth donating money and doing whatever we can as a society to help prevent diseases, and find a cure for those that we haven’t figured out yet. But still, let me ask the question, not from a logical point of view (the answer would be yes, period). Let me ask it again if it’s worth, from another perspective.

And what perspective is that? Well, shall we ask Jack Andraka? Does this name ring a bell? Well this young fella is, according to Smithsonian, “the Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer. He developed a promising early detection test for pancreatic cancer that’s super cheap, effective and non-invasive — all before his 16th birthday” (sic). Now, how is this possible? All the money and resources the whole world dedicates to cancer research, and a single -although super intelligent kid- found a cheaper, better way to detect cancer. My first thought is, and I might sound a conspiracy freak: “why the big pharmaceutical companies haven’t figured this out before”. Well they probably have, and maybe they hid it somewhere because using it would hurt their business model.

Proof? Well, the guy sent his method to 200 labs to develop it further. 198 replied back. They said NO. Please, let this fact sink in: they said NO to cheap cancer detection. There could be a very good explanation for this, but let’s be honest here. Which one is the most likely to be true? Exactly: the “cheap” bit hurts income.

Another example. Turing Pharmaceuticals bought a drug called Daraprim from Impax Laboratories in August for $55 million and raised the price from $13.50 a tablet to $750. The initial price (when it was made and sold by GlaxoSmithKline originally) was about $1 a tablet. After Turing’s move, San Diego-based Imprimis Pharmaceuticals says it has an alternative to the drug for $1 a pill. Turing CEO Martin Shkreli said that the new price was a necessary move to keep researching and improving the drug, which fights parasitic infections. So what is it? Greed? A real need to fund research? I say it’s all about business.

Every now and then we wake up and find breaking news about new scientific discoveries that promise to revolutionise our existence, claiming they can destroy evil diseases, from hair loss to HIV and cancer. Magazines like New Scientist publish headlines such “Cheap, ‘safe’ drug kills most cancers”, but after that nothing happens, we keep getting sick and we keep dying. Don’t take me wrong, I also see that super rich and supposedly intelligent people such Steve Jobs died because they refused to have their cancer treated, and instead they chose to go vegan and do yoga. Where are they now? Six feet under. But what’s really going on? Why do we have people finding extremely cheap ways to detect cancer at early stages in their home’s kitchen, with barely no resources? Why huge pharmaceutical companies haven’t seen that? Really, there must be other explanation other than this young guy’s high IQ.

Let me ask you something. I am not a scientist, okay? But I find it hard to understand that ebola had a working vaccine almost as soon as the virus reached the First World, but we still don’t have one for AIDS (first cases were reported in 1970). Yes, there have been a lot of improvements in HIV patients, right now they have this chronic disease they can live with… as long as they take (and pay) the drugs. They are depending on drugs, for the rest of their lives. A lifetime of medical expenses. Again, one can’t help thinking that this all seem rather convenient for those companies making these life extending drugs. Extending, yes, but not curing.

My article might come across as unfair to the scientific community, even as an insult. I understand that, and I apologise. But I am not alone here, and I think that after Jack Andraka’s shocking discovery, a lot of people have the same questions in their heads. It doesn’t make it any more fair to those who devote their career to legit research with a pure, altruistic spirit. But there is also a dark side that’s starting to feel obvious. I really hope that those who doubt the pharmaceutical sector, including myself, are wrong.

Maybe I am mixing up pharmaceutical companies with science with patents with money… But, are they really independent things? I hope so, because otherwise the question that opens this article, “Is it worth donating money to find the cure for diseases?” would be given a very sad answer.

Disclaimer: I am not insensitive to cancer. I’ve lost three uncles, my grandmother and a brother in law to cancer. My mum just had surgery to remove a malign tumor. That doesn’t make me a scientist, but it makes me a person who truly hopes we’ll find a cure, and soon. My concern is, are we doing it right, or are there dark entities putting their financial interests first?

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