I’ve got good news and bad news. I’ll give you the good news first:
A cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their “immortality”. The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.
It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.
Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.
DCA attacks a unique feature of cancer cells: the fact that they make their energy throughout the main body of the cell, rather than in distinct organelles called mitochondria. This process, called glycolysis, is inefficient and uses up vast amounts of sugar.
Until now it had been assumed that cancer cells used glycolysis because their mitochondria were irreparably damaged. However, Michelakis’s experiments prove this is not the case, because DCA reawakened the mitochondria in cancer cells. The cells then withered and died.
And now for the bad news: Michelakis can’t get any drug companies to fund a clinical trial, which can cost several hundred million dollars to conduct. Because DCA doesn’t have a patent, and costs pennies to produce, there’s no potential payoff for the corporations. Unless a non-profit or government steps forward, this research will remain stuck in the lab.
Chances are, of course, that DCA won’t turn out be a miracle cure. (This isn’t the first anti-cancer drug to look great in the lab, and it won’t be the last.) But it still seems ridiculous that a promising treatment is being ignored because it’s too cheap. If I were Nancy Pelosi, I’d take the money we will save by negotiating directly with the drug companies, and divide it between the NIH and a new agency, which will undertake clinical trials for promising drugs that Big Pharm isn’t interested in.
Update: I think MattXIV, in the comments, really nailed the issue:
This is a major blindspot of the incentive structure of the patent/FDA approval system. If you can’t patent the compound, it is often impossible to make a profit on it after the expenses of clinical trials. DCA as a compound may be cheap, but DCA as a drug is expensive, because it isn’t considered a legit drug until it goes through clinical trials, which aren’t cheap whether the money is recouped by charging monopoly prices for the finished product or collected via taxation.
Hat Tip: Ezra