Medical innovation key to healthy future

While the practice of medicine is rapidly changing, indigenous development of drugs is sadly lagging.

Innovation is a cornerstone of the care-giving medical fraternity. This is especially so in the field of life-saving drugs that extend and improve life. As things stand, with the dramatic increase of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) and diseases without treatments, there is an urgent need for research and drug discovery in pharmaceuticals. The immense healthcare challenges we face today require that we prioritise and incentivise innovation, aggressively.

Medical innovation is a critical and immediate need to alleviate human suffering in numerous therapeutic areas. A collaborative effort is desired for innovation to thrive and all stakeholders — the government, policy makers, caregivers, the research-based pharmaceutical industry and patients — should collaborate to nurture innovation in life sciences.

It is important that the stakeholders recognise the value of innovative medicines for the people of the country and that the government ensures an ecosystem that promotes medical innovation.

While the practice of medicine is rapidly changing, and the health-seeking behaviour and expectations of Indian patients are in line with the rest of the world, the indigenous development of medicines is sadly lagging. We have not witnessed any credible translation of research or knowledge into indigenous solutions, nor are the wonderful innovations happening worldwide reaching us fast enough.

There is, in fact, an urgent need for innovation in the field of medicines that is at par with advancements in other aspects of the healthcare system. Cutting edge high-tech tools, such as echocardiograms and computed tomography (CT) scans, are helping diagnose or rule out the underlying causes of disease.

An array of medical devices, surgical procedures and interventions are also more readily available now, as compared to just a decade earlier. We now need a climate that encourages innovation and engenders the same level of advancement in medicine.

Another area where there is urgent need for innovation is the crisis of antibiotic resistance. Worldwide, life expectancy at birth jumped from 31 years in 1900 to 47 in 1940.

Among other things, this jump could be attributed to a wave of global drug and chemical innovations; predominantly the discovery of antibiotics such as penicillin and streptomycin.  Newer antibiotics and more effective drugs made a very positive impact in treating infectious diseases, which are no longer the biggest killers of human kind. Research transformed me­dicine and saved millions of lives.

In recent times, however, there has been a rapid emergence of resistant bacteria that is occurring worldwide and sabotaging the efficacy of antibiotics. Now, many decades after the first patients were treated with antibiotics, antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections have become a threat once more.

This has been partly attributed to the overuse and misuse of existing medications, but also because we have not seen any new generation antibiotics. The lack of new drug development by the pharmaceutical industry can be attributed to high research costs and reduced economic incentives.

Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) has been recognised as a looming crisis globally and a declaration on combating AMR was signed last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The signatories included international pharma, diagnostics and biotech companies, as well as key industry bodies. They called on governments around the world to work with the industry in taking collective action aga­inst drug-resistant infections.

High-returns investment
While medical innovation is exp­ensive, it must be seen as an investment towards healthier and more productive lives. Medications, therapies, medical technologies and devices not only save lives, but also save money in the long run. As a society, we need to recognise the enormous returns that investment in medical innovation delivers.

In a paper published by the Journal of Political Economy in 2006, it was estimated that over the preceding 50 years, medical innovation accounted for nearly half of all economic growth in the United States.

It can pay to follow the European Union (EU) lead in this case. In 2009, the EU spent 1.8% of its GDP on research and development, and plans to further bolster this investment with the introduction of an ambitious growth strategy (Europe 2020) to help drive R&D investments up to 3% of the GDP by 2020.

In fact, projects like ‘The 100,000 Genome Project’ in the UK — a £300 million collaboration with universities, the department of health, the Wellcome Trust, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Medical Research Council — to sequence genomes to map the genetic profile of thousands of rare diseases and cancers are worth emulating.

We need to begin taking such radical steps in India, too, soon to help the pharma industry innovate and deliver. It is inarguable that innovation is important, not just because organisa-tions that fail to innovate will suffer but also because patients and care givers are demanding it, and most importantly beca­use everyone deserves the benefits that innovation delivers.

(The writer is Professor of Cardiology, AIIMS, New Delhi)

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