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January 18, 2007

What If Cancer Could Be Cured For Pennies? Corporations, Globalization  Science/Technology

Pharmaceutical companies' worst nightmare: a cheap, unpatentable drug that cures cancer. New Scientist reports on just such a drug. It kills cancer cells by restoring the normal process by which cells self-destruct:

It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their "immortality". The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.

It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.

Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.

DCA attacks a unique feature of cancer cells: the fact that they make their energy throughout the main body of the cell, rather than in distinct organelles called mitochondria. This process, called glycolysis, is inefficient and uses up vast amounts of sugar.

Until now it had been assumed that cancer cells used glycolysis because their mitochondria were irreparably damaged. However, Michelakis’s experiments prove this is not the case, because DCA reawakened the mitochondria in cancer cells. The cells then withered and died (Cancer Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.ccr.2006.10.020).

Michelakis suggests that the switch to glycolysis as an energy source occurs when cells in the middle of an abnormal but benign lump don't get enough oxygen for their mitochondria to work properly. In order to survive, they switch off their mitochondria and start producing energy through glycolysis.

Crucially, though, mitochondria do another job in cells: they activate apoptosis, the process by which abnormal cells self-destruct. When cells switch mitochondria off, they become "immortal", outliving other cells in the tumour and so becoming dominant. Once reawakened by DCA, mitochondria reactivate apoptosis and order the abnormal cells to die.

It's a treatment that has the potential to be effective against many forms of cancer. And it will be cheap. That is the problem. AHN [via Digby]:

It is expected there would be no problems securing funding to explore a drug that could shrink cancerous tumors and has no side-effects in humans, but University of Alberta researcher Evangelos Michelakis has hit a stalemate with the private sector who would normally fund such a venture.

Michelakis' drug is none other than dichloroacetate (DCA), a drug which cannot be patented and costs pennies to make.

It's no wonder he can't secure the $400-600 million needed to conduct human trials with the medicine — the drug doesn't have the potential to make enough money.

Michelakis told reporters they will be applying to public agencies for funding, as pharmaceuticals are reluctant to pick up the drug.

At roughly $2 a dose, there isn't much chance to make a billion on the cancer treatment over the long term.

According to research on DCA, formerly used to fight metabolic disease in children, the drug apparently revitalizes damaged mitochondria in cancer cells, effectively triggering cell death and shrinking the cells.

"One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer," explained Michelakis. [Emphasis added]

It's not that drug companies are run by evil people, exactly. It's that drug companies, like all corporations, are machines programmed to follow a single prime directive: maximize (short-term) profits.

But here we see a stark illustration of the fatal flaw at the heart of the "free market" — it may be more profitable to destroy the world than to save it, and it may be more profitable to kill people than to make them well. When that's the case, we shouldn't be surprised when the market responds accordingly. Corporations see the world through a very narrow peephole. They have their sights set on one thing only — but profit is an exceedingly inadequate guide to what is good for people and for the world over the long term.

Posted by Jonathan at January 18, 2007 09:37 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


New Scientist has a long history of seriously overhyping its science stories. (Many publications in England do.) It's so bad that I really don't believe anything they write anymore until it is vetted by a more reasonable (read: US) publication.

Posted by: Carl at January 19, 2007 07:55 AM

This is all very credible to me. I lost my whole family to cancer and have studied this issue for long time. I intend to research further into this and publish articles about it if I find reinforcement in the literature.

Posted by: Bill Sturgeon at January 19, 2007 11:52 AM

There's a whole bunch of flawed logic here. One, no company has to patent any of its products to sell them. A patent only prevents other companies from making them. Two, just because the drug is dirt cheap to make does not mean it will have a low price on the market. If fact, just the opposite is true. Most drugs are cheap to manufacture and their initial high costs are usually to cover the years of R&D that went into developing them. Third, people would gladly pay high prices to cure their cancer. Fourth, if the drug is as cheap to make as it's stated, then there's a huge profit margin. Fifth, there are already plenty of drugs on the market that require FDA approval that cost less than $2 a dose. Lastly, and most importantly, the cure for cancer would be THE medical breakthrough of all time, and drug companies know this. So if you're the first drug company to bring this to market, even at a lose, you get major positive exposure which always helps in attracting new shareholders and future sales of new drugs.

None of this smells right so I have to agree with Cari on this one - this drug can't be a rosy as it sounds.

Posted by: Jeff at January 19, 2007 05:08 PM

Jeff, the reason patentability is relevant is that the lack of a patent means (assuming companies aren't engaging in joint price-fixing) that competition will prevent a company from charging a price that gives them the kind of huge profit margin you're talking about. Which is why generics are cheaper. The calculation companies have to make is what is the return on investment given the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost them to do human trials. Suppose my company pays to do the human trials, and I prove the drug effective. Then every other drug company on earth (because of the lack of a patent) gets to jump in and manufacture the drug, too. I've paid for the trials, and everybody else gets a free ride. My share of the market won't be sufficient for me to make it worth my while. As for the positive exposure, I can't see trying to take that argument to shareholders. How does that fall through to the bottom line? If I got to be the only company selling the miracle drug, then that would make me pretty special in the eyes of doctors and patients. But when all of my competitors are selling the exact same drug...

Posted by: Jonathan at January 19, 2007 06:20 PM

If this drug works, and was produced, it would
mean a massive loss of profits up and down the
health care system.

At every level, the corporate responsibility to
shareholder profits would require them to not only
NOT pay to bring it to market, but to resist it's

No evil required, just the demands of doing business.

Posted by: at January 20, 2007 04:00 PM

"It's not personal, it's just business." Donald Trump

Posted by: at January 21, 2007 11:10 AM