House drug bill dooms medical research

Style Magazine Newswire | 1/7/2020, 12:14 p.m.

By Peter Rheinstein

House lawmakers recently voted to pass the "Lower Drug Costs Now Act," which would enable government officials to set the price of lifesaving medicines. The bill would reduce pharmaceutical companies' revenues by a staggering $1 trillion over the coming decade.

That would bring medical research projects to a screeching halt -- and doom millions of patients to premature deaths from otherwise curable diseases.

Right now, America leads the world in medical innovation. We account for just 5 percent of the global population and 24 percent of the world economy, but create more than 50 percent of all novel drugs.

Thanks to such innovation, many once-fatal diseases are now manageable -- or even curable.

HIV/AIDS death rates have tumbled 88 percent since drug companies introduced antiretroviral therapies in the mid-1990s. Cancer death rates have dropped 27 percent since they peaked in 1991. And earlier this decade, drug companies rolled out treatments that cure nearly 100 percent of patients with hepatitis C, a fatal liver disease.

Across the country, scientists are developing 4,500 experimental treatments.

But if lawmakers enable government regulators to set drug prices, these medicines will likely never come to market. Firms would have little prospect of recouping their research costs -- much less turning a profit. So they wouldn't attract investors willing to fund the search for future treatments and cures. Millions of current and future patients will die from diseases that could have otherwise been treated.

This issue is deeply personal for me. My father died from a heart attack at age 53. And cardiovascular disease killed both my grandfathers. I am now 76, so thanks to medical innovation, I've already lived almost 50 percent longer than my father -- and worked twice as long.

With that genetic track record, I should be doomed. But like millions of other patients around the world, I take Lipitor to reduce my risk of heart attack and stroke.

Lipitor and other statins were invented by American drug companies. They're now cheaply available as generics around the world.

Would scientists be able to attract funding for future Lipitors under the House bill? I worry.

Many lawmakers acknowledge the bill would cripple private-sector R&D. But they argue the government could simply assume a greater share of the research burden. After all, the bill would save the government tens of billions of dollars each year. Surely, they argue, some of that money could fund federal research agencies like the National Institutes of Health.

As a medical researcher and drug developer, I know that plan wouldn't work. The NIH does great research -- but its employees focus on solving basic scientific mysteries. The agency doesn't have the infrastructure or personnel to turn insights into tangible new drugs.

Congress can -- and should -- find ways to make medicines more accessible. But the House bill isn't the right solution. If lawmakers gut America's research industry, future Lipitors will never emerge from the lab.

At age 76, Peter Rheinstein, a doctor of medicine and law, is president of the Academy of Medicine of Washington, DC and a former president of the Academy of Physicians in Clinical Research.