Tuberculosis or Hair Loss? Refocusing Medical Research

The diseases that cause nine-tenths of what the World Health Organization calls “the global burden of disease” currently receive only one-tenth of the world’s medical research effort. But a new proposal would give drug companies a strong financial incentive to focus their attention on the diseases that cause the most harm.

PRINCETON – In an ideal world, the amount of money we spend on medical research to prevent or cure a disease would be proportional to its seriousness and the number of people who suffer from it. In the real world, 90% of the money spent on medical research is focused on conditions that are responsible for just 10% of the deaths and disability caused by diseases globally. 

In other words, the diseases that cause nine-tenths of what the World Health Organization refers to as “the global burden of disease” are getting only one-tenth of the world’s medical research effort. As a result, millions of people die every year from diseases for which no new drugs are in the pipeline, while drug companies pour billions into developing cures for erectile dysfunction and baldness.

But blaming drug companies is too easy a response. They cannot justify developing new drugs unless they can expect to recoup their costs through sales. If they target diseases that affect affluent people, or people living in countries with national health insurance, they will be able to patent any new drugs they discover. For the 20 years that the patent lasts, they will have a monopoly on the drug’s sale and be able to command a high price. 

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