My decade plus grapple with chronic progressive disabling illness has also taught me a hell of a lot about modern medicine and medical research. Admittedly, these are lessons I naturally would rather have not had to learn, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Multiple sclerosis is an enigmatic disease, and the rarer, progressive forms of the disease are particularly inscrutable, but my affliction managed to wake within me a long dormant inner scientist, or an at least inner scientist wannabe, who finds a lot of this stuff fascinating, frustrating, infuriating, and maybe sometimes even a little bit fulfilling. I sure do wish that wake-up call had come in the form of something much less horrific, but again, that wasn’t up to me. If nothing else, the time since my diagnosis has made for quite an education.
When I was living my long-ago and far away healthy life, my interactions with the world of medicine were usually brief and fairly perfunctory, even if I did have a pretty good working knowledge of disease due to my well hewn hypochondria. I took comfort, though, in the seemingly nonstop procession of blaring headlines and breathless news items regarding the latest medical breakthroughs, which painted a picture of modern medicine as something close to a bright and shiny miracle machine, ever more able to conquer devastating illness and fix broken bodies.
When I got sick, however, it didn’t take long for me to come to the uncomfortable realization that I’d been somewhat hoodwinked, that although some specific areas of medicine had seen huge advances, large parts of the modern medicine miracle machine so often portrayed in the media are in fact held together by shoestring and chewing gum. High-tech and expensive shoestring and chewing gum to be sure, wielded by some dedicated and knowledgeable people, but in far too many cases not much more effective than the shoestring and chewing gum that existed half a century ago.
Tremendous breakthroughs have been made in the surgical arena, where procedures that are now done daily would have been looked on as the stuff of fantasy 50 years ago. It wasn’t until 1954 that the first kidney transplant was performed, and over the next 15 years transplants of lungs, livers, and hearts were first successfully achieved. These procedures, all lifesavers, are now common if not routine. The advents of bypass surgery and angioplasty have been incredible game changers in the field of cardiac medicine, and neurosurgery too has witnessed advances barely dreamt of just a few decades ago. Surgery has become increasingly less invasive and much more survivable. Back in 1989 I suffered a detached retina, resulting in a surgery that required a four-day hospital stay and a two-month convalescence. Today, the same procedure is done on an outpatient basis. Incredible.
When it comes to treating many diseases, though, shockingly few tangible advances have been made in the last 50 years. Antibiotics have revolutionized the treatment of diseases caused by bacterial infections, but wide swathes of other illnesses have proven incredibly hard to crack. Neurologic diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other less common maladies of the nervous system remain as untreatable as ever. The so-called autoimmune illnesses like diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis continue to stymie researchers, and though some of these diseases now have treatments that improve quality of life, none have divulged any of the secrets that might lead to a cure. Despite massive amounts of time and money spent on research, many cancers remain just as deadly today as they were in years past. Though some specific malignancies such as those of the breast, prostate, and lung are much more survivable today than ever before, the overall cancer death rate has decreased, astoundingly, only 5% since 1950 (click here)! When it comes to the vast majority of cancers, medicine has learned how to keep those afflicted alive somewhat longer, and there is of course much to be said for that, but it hasn’t found a way to keep them from dying of their malignancies. All in all, many diseases, though perhaps better understood, remain devastating and deadly despite the efforts of the modern medicine establishment. The situation makes me want to howl in dismay.
Naturally, the disease I’m most intimately familiar with is MS. Surely, there have been significant advances made in treating the relapsing remitting form of the disease, but the progressive flavors of the disease remained wicked, untamed, and diabolical beasts. Though the mysteries of MS are slowly being unraveled, the advances have been incremental, and each new discovery seems to only open the door for more questions. Just a little over 20 years ago there were no treatments for even relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), aside from the use of intravenous steroids to help calm down active relapses. The disease was considered by many doctors to be a “diagnose and adios” illness, for which not much could be done. Today, there are 10 FDA approved disease modifying drugs on the market, with a handful more on the way. None of these drugs is perfect, with a wide variance of effectiveness, tolerance, and potentially dangerous – and even deadly – side effects among them, but they have improved the quality of life of people with RRMS, in many cases dramatically.
I was intensely skeptical and harshly critical of some of these drugs when they were first introduced, thinking that their risks would far outweigh any potential benefits, but time and mounting evidence has softened my views. Facts are facts, and the preponderance of evidence shows that when administered properly to diligently monitored patients, even those MS drugs considered the most dangerous have had tremendous positive impact on many of the relapsing remitting patients who take them, at times even allowing some patients to live lives free of any evidence of disease activity, and experienced neurologists have learned to manage the risks involved quite well. That said, the status quo remains unacceptable. There is still nothing for us “progressives”, and all of the current MS drugs tinker to a lesser or greater extent with the workings of the intensely complex human immune system, the product of tens of millions of years of evolution. It’s clear that the aberrant immune response that has become the hallmark of MS is in reality a symptom of a much greater and as yet undiscovered ill, and continued focus on that immune response will not lead to a cure. Unfortunately, the very success of the immunosuppressant agents used to treat MS has made the search for the ultimate cause of the disease all the more difficult. Why? Because, quite simply, our system for medical research is flat out broken.
Up until about 20 or 30 years ago, most medical research was done on behalf of governments and academia, for whom profit potential didn’t much play into the equation. Since the 1980s, though, more and more research has been funded by the big pharmaceutical companies, and today upwards of 75% of all medical research is powered by pharmaceutical company monies, with that number growing ever higher due to our current economic and political climate. Though some of the business practices of these companies can be nauseating, there’s nothing inherently evil about the companies that develop, market, and manufacture pharmaceutical products.
It’s vitally important when thinking about these Big Pharma companies to keep in mind that they are publicly traded for-profit entities, and as such they are mandated by law to be beholden to their shareholders, not to the end-users of their products – otherwise known as patients. This dynamic creates some inherent conflicts of interest, as the mission of any business is to generate ever-increasing profits, and when it comes to medicine greater profits do not always translate into greater therapeutics. In some cases, the very reverse may be true.
Simply put, the job of a drug company CEO is not necessarily to produce the most effective drugs, but the most profitable. In point of fact, if a pharmaceutical CEO put medical potential above profit potential he could very well be breaking the law. Therefore, pharmaceutical company research monies pour into projects that stand the greatest chance of generating terrific profit, which are likely not efforts that might upend an already lucrative business model. This is why so many of the new drugs we see are of the “me too” variety, variations on older drugs that have already proven their profit potential. The corrosive influence of big money generated by blockbuster drugs has thoroughly infiltrated our medical research model, skewing the focus of much medical research from purely scientific to also encompass the predilections of the marketplace.
For their part, researchers, as well-intentioned as they may be, must pay the rent and feed their families just like everybody else, and so are drawn to projects most likely to receive generous funding, which are these days are those that have the attentions of the big pharmaceutical companies. Thus we have on our hands a kind of highly dysfunctional perpetual motion machine, fueled by people performing their jobs to the best of their abilities, which unfortunately is not constituted to produce the results most desired by legions of sick people and the professionals who treat them.
The problem is insidious, and is at this point woven into the very fabric of the system. Though this system has certainly come up with its share of medical advances, it hasn’t produced much in the way of cures, and in fact can stymie potentially paradigm shifting research that doesn’t present any obvious profit potential and/or threatens the status quo. Older drugs that might be repurposed for the greater good, or natural and alternative remedies that might be as effective as pharmaceutical products stand very little chance of receiving the research dollars needed to prove their worth simply because they have no potential to generate tremendous amounts of cash. Radical new concepts are often shunned not out of evil intent but for cold business reasons, as bringing them to fruition would be cost prohibitive, and even if successful they could kill the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. We have turned diseases into multibillion-dollar industries and the sick into consumers in a topsy-turvy medical research environment in which success is most often measured in dollars earned, not diseases eradicated or people cured. What’s the answer? Got me, I’m too busy slowly watching myself becoming a complete cripple.
So, where does this leave me after my 11 year struggle with MS? Well, conflicted, to say the least. I’ve met incredibly dedicated professionals who are literally obsessed with finding the cure for MS, filling me with hope. Simultaneously, though, I’ve come to understand that despite these folk’s best efforts, the system within which they work is fundamentally flawed, a fact which fills me with consternation. That gleaming tower that modern medicine appeared to be when I was healthy has instead been revealed to be more a product of spin and public relations than reality. I’ve evolved as a person and a patient, as I’ve come to understand that there are no absolutes when it comes to life and medicine, and especially when it comes to a disease as devilish as multiple sclerosis.
Despite the mysteries of the disease and the madly dysfunctional research model that is now the norm, each day I read some stimulating new bit of research, or talk to a researcher wholly dedicated to the cause, and can’t help but nurture a persistent optimism, even in the face of my relentlessly progressing disease and the tremendous obstacles that stand between me and the realization of my dream to once again be whole. Stem cells may hold the answer, or anti-HIV drugs, or something completely unexpected that may pop out of some far away test tube tomorrow. We can only hope that if and when such a discovery is made, it manages to see the light of day.
Really, though, I just want to take a walk…