Innovation, lifeline of medical research

Research and innovation have been changing the face of this world, sometimes in small steps and sometimes in quantum leaps.

This applies even more in the world of medicine than in many other areas. Everything, from telecom and manufacturing to technology and healthcare has witnessed revolutionary progress thanks in large part to the wonders of innovation. Nowhere is the impact of this greater than in medicine, when the incurable becomes curable, when the triumph of life over death can be celebrated and when the alleviation of pain and suffering becomes a reward in itself. There are many striking examples that bear this out.

In 1955, Dr Jonas Salk announced to the world that he had developed a vaccine for poliomyelitis (or polio) and the world was forever changed. Through years of dedicated research, Dr Salk was able to ensure that children around the world could be safe from this scourge. Today, India is on the brink of Polio-free certification from the World Health Organisation (WHO) because of this medical marvel. Using vaccines to prevent a range of diseases is now standard practice and this includes vaccination against certain types of cancer. The treatment for CVD, which at one time took a heavy toll on life, is now far advanced. Just 25 years ago, if a patient went to a hospital with a heart attack, the best one could do was to inject the patient with morphine for pain and lidocaine.

Cancer remains the biggest challenge but medical science is not giving up. Over the years, research has yielded solutions to help doctors extend lives of cancer patients and even make some cancers go into remission. Patients who earlier had a few months to live, can today hope for a complete cure or at least prolonged and improved quality of life. Continuous research by scientists around the world has directly translated into the reduction in death rates of many common cancers.

Leading killer

But the battle is far from over. According to WHO estimates, cancer continues to be the leading killer with 7.6 million deaths reported in 2008 and the death count rising each year. The total cancer cases in India are likely to go up from 9.80 lakh cases in 2010 to 11.50 lakh cases in 2020. Solutions will once again come from research and innovation. No one who understands the magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead of us can deny or question this fact. Organisations and institutions are already investing large amounts of money and resources to fuel this endeavor.

Research in drug discovery is funded by commercially generated funds. It costs a great deal of money and takes a long time to deliver. It carries fundamental risks and has to be written off quite frequently. Without patent protection, research would come to a halt. Questions on how long this protection should last can be taken up and discussed as a corollary, but questioning the very rationale for patent protection gets us nowhere.

Currently, the biopharmaceutical industry, in partnership with other stakeholders, is in the process of developing around 3,000 cancer medicines, 80 per cent of which have the chance to be first-in-class treatments. Notwithstanding the ultimate higher cost of these drugs, placing obstacles in the process of discovery would only add to the world’s disease and death burden. Respecting the right of Intellectual property owners does not mean depriving the poor of effective medicines. The onus of providing access to medicine for the poor in any nation rests with a complex web of stakeholders. Each stakeholder has a responsibility and, through dialogue and cooperation, must jointly deliver on the people’s expectation.

We need to discuss cost of drugs in the context of the value they provide to patients, physicians and to the entire healthcare delivery. The ultimate beneficiary of any research in healthcare is the patient and we must ensure we make these drugs available to patients and incentivise discovery.

As a society, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to strengthen our commitment to advance innovative research and development. Innovation in healthcare can save lives and offer hope to patients whose conditions may previously have been difficult or impossible to treat. At the same time, innovation is not only improving products, it is improving the way that healthcare is delivered, making healthcare systems more efficient and more sustainable.

(The writer is director general, Organisation of Pharmaceuticals Producers of India)

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