That’s no easy task. As Nocera notes up high in his piece, “Collectively, [such foundations] spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year. And yet — and here is the rub — the diseases they are trying to cure remain stubbornly uncured.” That frustrating reality comes through just as forcefully in an article by Sharon Begley in the current issue of Newsweek, headlined “Where Are the Cures?” Her piece mentions Fox, as well as number of other foundations, but focuses on the systemic problems that inhibit research:
The nation’s biomedical funding and training system are set up to do one thing, and they do it superlatively: make discoveries. That is what scientists dream of, that is what gets them published in leading journals (the coin of the realm in academia) and that is what gets them grants from the National Institutes of Health. Here’s what doesn’t get them any of those: the grunt work that [Hans] Keirstead did to turn his spinal-cord breakthrough [injecting stem cells into rats with severed spines in order to cure paralysis] into something that can be tried in patients.
These barriers to “translational” research (studies that move basic discoveries from bench to bedside) have become so daunting that scientists have a phrase for the chasm between a basic scientific discovery and a new treatment. “It’s called the valley of death,” says Greg Simon, president of FasterCures, a center set up by the (Michael) Milken Institute in 2003 to achieve what its name says. The valley of death is why many promising discoveries—genes linked to cancer and Parkinson’s disease; biochemical pathways that ravage neurons in Lou Gehrig’s disease—never move forward.
Begley’s piece then takes a political twist (the only apparent peg for the story, though it appears down low) with the mention that “The next administration and Congress have a chance to change that, radically revamping the nation’s biomedical research system by creating what proponents … call a ‘center for cures’ at NIH. The center would house multidisciplinary teams of biologists, chemists, technicians and others who would take a discovery such as Keirstead’s and nurture it along to the point where a company is willing to put up the hundreds of millions of dollars to test it in patients.”
Whether or not that idea will come to fruition remains to be seen. According to the Democrat and Chronicle in New York, however, the University of Rochester is building a $76.4 million Clinical and Translational Science Institute that will be the “first building of its kind in the nation.”
At any rate, both the Times and Newsweek deserve credit for drawing attention to these rather profound changes in the fields of genomics and biomedical research. Without immediate and obvious news pegs, these wide-angle, forward-looking stories are not easy to tell in the modern media climate, yet the emerging trends expressed therein are likely to one day have significant impacts on human health.