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Teaming up to tackle the world’s dreaded diseases

From an editorial in the Chicago Tribune on Friday:

Every year pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars in the hope that their scientists will develop blockbuster drugs to defeat the world’s most fearsome diseases. Today these drugs help untold millions of people hold HIV at bay, shrink their tumors, survive life-threatening infections and cut their risks of devastating stroke or heart attack.

But many drugs that look promising in the lab don’t work in trials. Or they cause serious side effects. As patients continue to await powerful treatments, researchers lose time, and their employers lose money. The National Institutes of Health says that “developing a new drug – from early discovery through (Food and Drug Administration) approval – takes well over a decade and has a failure rate of more than 95 percent.”

Competition to create (and profit from) new drugs is fierce, and rightly so. But what if drug companies pooled their talents and resources to mount coordinated attacks on some of the most pernicious diseases? Could they conquer Alzheimer’s disease, just as U.S. ingenuity and engineering put a man on the moon? Could they solve the puzzle of diabetes just as physicists with the Manhattan Project brought forth a war-ending nuclear bomb?

The NIH thinks so. This week it announced an ambitious five-year, $230 million plan: Harness the power of 10 large drug companies and seven nonprofit organizations to accelerate the development of drugs to treat four major predators – Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The NIH drug-developing dream team will share data and collaborate to determine which findings are most likely to lead to effective treatments. Instead of the usual cloak of secrecy over such efforts, researchers will publish their findings and data for all to see.

If this pioneering effort works, it will be expanded to attack other diseases.

The NIH isn’t the first to suggest that scientists, notoriously competitive and territorial, cooperate in a search for cures. But we like NIH’s chances.

Pooling drug companies and an army of scientists may or may not produce huge breakthroughs. If this does succeed, the benefits reaped will be measured not merely in dollars, but in lives – potentially millions of lives – improved and saved.

Diseases can seem indomitable – until resolute and methodical scientists prove otherwise. Think about polio. Or smallpox. Or diphtheria. Each was tamed by medical innovation.

Let’s hope the NIH dream team adds to that list of the vanquished. And soon.

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