Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

Breakthrough in Melanoma Treatment Highlights Innate Flaws of For-Profit Health Care

melanoma cells

It’s always gratifying to see breakthroughs in the ongoing struggle against cancers of all kinds:

A newly developed pair of drugs has been shown to be successful in the treatment of the deadly skin cancer melanoma.

Designed by Bristol-Myers and Roche, to work in different ways, the drugs vemurafenib and Yervoy have successfully treated late-stage patients who, according to WebMD had precious few options in the past.

Dr. James Larkin worked on the trials of both drugs and said this is the first advancement in melanoma treatment since the 1970s.

This makes these the first drugs to prolong survival from a type of cancer that claims the lives of more than one in 10 of its victims. … Once the cancer spreads from its original mole-like lesion, metastasizes, the mortality rate climbs to 85 percent.

Clearly, the creation of two groundbreaking medications in the fight against melanoma is a refreshing development in our epic battle against one of the world’s biggest killers.  We should all be thankful that the precision of science allows us to accomplish such tasks, as without science we would be lost in the face of such lethal afflictions.  But it is also important to recognize that our current system of research, development and administration of medical care just isn’t good enough.

The above story proves as much in several aspects.  First, it is worth noting that article quoted above was found on a site entitled “Business Insider.”  In a more just society, people might wonder what connection could exist between business and treatment for a notoriously lethal disease.  In ours, however, it is perfectly reasonable to point out the manufacturers of this lifesaving new medicine, as their latest creation have unleashed the potential for earning substantial sums of money.  “Designed by Bristol-Myers and Roche,” the article states in the second paragraph, highlighting both the importance of the information, and the opportunity to invest in a company on which people’s lives literally depend.  It is morally reprehensible, yet a completely accepted practice in our twisted, profit-driven society.

Notice also that the aforementioned drugs represent “the first advancement in melanoma treatment since the 1970s.”  Really?  The first advancement in nearly forty years, in spite of the advent of the computer age, the sequencing of the human genetic code, and the promise of stem cell research?  How is it that in forty years we have not managed a single improvement on the drugs from the era of the Vietnam War?  It certainly isn’t because we lacked the capacity to improve upon earlier medicines, so why exactly has progress been so slow?

The answer, of course, lies in the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is just that – an industry.  It exists in order to reap maximum profits for its shareholders, and at the end of the day, some types of medication are more profitable than others.  Saving lives is not the goal, but merely a lucky consequence that sometimes results from chasing dollars.

Pharmaceutical companies tend to flock towards those medicines which require lifelong use – chronic illnesses of all kinds, whether real or imagined.  Consider how many children in the United States are taking various types of medication for previously unrecognized disorders.  Note how many millions of adults are taking anti-depressants or any of a wide variety of anti-anxiety medications, and just how many types of such medicines have been developed in recent years.  This is not to say that such medicines are not beneficial in their own way.  They are, and they are clearly warranted in many cases.

But it should seem slightly unsettling that so many anti-depressants have emerged in recent years, while fatal illnesses like melanoma were ignored for nearly four decades.  Melanoma, quite simply, is not a profitable illness.  Once cured, there is no need to continue taking medication.  A person may require medication for a few months, as opposed to a few decades for the chronically anxious or depressed.  So of course the pharmaceutical industries focus on chronic afflictions rather than curable ones, and wherever possible seek long-term treatment options over short-term.

HIV, once a uniformly fatal disease, is now largely considered a chronic disease, thanks to the emergence of HAART treatment regimens in the late 90s.  Obviously this is a welcome development that has saved untold millions of lives.  But considering the remarkable success of pharmaceutical companies in finding effective treatments for the virus in a relatively short time frame, shouldn’t we wonder if more might have been possible?  Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in keeping HIV a chronic illness – one which requires lifetime consumption of expensive medications – rather than a curable one.

The median life expectancy for a person newly diagnosed with HIV is roughly 35 years.  A cure for HIV would mean one short-term treatment regime, providing perhaps $1,000 for the manufacturer of the medicine.  In stark contrast, chronic treatment easily exceeds $1,000 per month, prolonged over a 35 year period — $420,000 to the pharmaceutical company, as opposed to a paltry $1,000.

So it’s great to see a new development in the fight against cancer, but it’s hard not to wonder where we might now be if profit had never played a role in the arena of sickness and health.

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One response to “Breakthrough in Melanoma Treatment Highlights Innate Flaws of For-Profit Health Care

  1. doug mccarthy June 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    You have no idea just what a load of rubbish you just published. Billions of dollars of research has gone on in the last 40 years trying to find effective treatments for melanoma. Unfortunately it just happens to be a particularly horrible cancer and will continue to be for the forseeable future. The drug companies have taken a massive hit to their profits coming up against dead ends for the last 40 years but still they persisted. They should be commended for their persistence because if profit was their only driving factor they would have given up long ago. And whats the alternative, government funded research where resources would be allocated depending on the media driven stories of the day in an effort to secure votes for their next election. You need a global mix of research from as many different funding pools as possible but dont slag off the drug companies because without their research we would be decades behind.

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