The 4th February 2016 was World Cancer Day - a day to reflect on how cancer impacts our lives. I'm sure that many of us, including me, will be thinking about loved ones we've lost or who are living with cancer right now, but it's also a time to think about what we could do to bring forward the day when we no longer live in fear of cancer.
I wanted to share with you my thoughts on this in the form of a letter that I've sent to my MP. The letter highlights what I see as the number one obstacle to progress in developing cancer cures - the competing needs of those investing in developing cures and those who need them; a tug of war between the shareholders of pharmaceutical companies and cancer patients who depend on the drugs they develop.
Shareholders, who invest in pharmaceutical companies, understandably want to make as much profit as possible from their investment and the best way to maximise profits from the 'cancer market' is to slowly introduce new drugs of marginal benefit over a prolonged period of time (to eke out the revenues that can be generated before lasting cures are developed).
Patients on the other hand, who depend on pharmaceutical companies, want the opposite -they want breakthrough drugs with big benefits to be developed as soon as possible.
It's a battle between health and wealth, trading off lives for profits. And the pharmaceutical companies are the ones in control.
In my view, it is this conflict of interest that is the number one obstacle to progress and we should be concentrating our efforts on tackling this problem if we really want to beat cancer sooner.
This is my letter...
Sir Paul Beresford MP
House of Commons
Dear Sir Paul Beresford MP,
I am writing to you as a recently bereaved husband of a cancer patient who tragically lost her life to the illness at the age of just 41. During our three year battle to try to regain her health, my wife and I became immersed in the world of cancer, both at home and abroad, and observed many issues with the way society approaches cancer; none more so than the conflicts of interest that exist due to the competing needs of two primary groups of stakeholders - patients and shareholders.
Across the world, one person dies of cancer every eight seconds, but perversely the organisations that we rely on to develop cures for cancer (the pharmaceutical companies) have nothing to gain by developing them and plenty to lose. In 2014 global revenues from cancer drugs passed $100bn, up from $75bn five years earlier and estimated to grow to as much as $147bn by 2018. A genuine cure for cancer would send this figure plummeting. But it's not just the scale of revenues that is staggering, it's also the scale of profiteering - the pharmaceutical industry makes bigger profit margins than any other major industry, with some drug companies making eye-watering profit margins of up to 42%. Treating cancer must be one of the most lucrative business opportunities on the planet - something society should be very ashamed of.
Why would any pharmaceutical company want to destroy a market this valuable by developing cures? Once a cure is found and the drug is out of patent (usually 8-10 years after the drug is licensed), the price of the drug would then plummet and so would any future profits - typically drug prices drop by 90% when a patent expires, as the price then reflects only the cost of manufacturing and is kept low by competitive market forces.
But we can't blame the pharmaceutical companies for wanting to grow markets and maximise profits, as they are just doing what commercial organisations are supposed to do - act in the best interests of their shareholders. The blame lies with us; with Society. We have placed the responsibility for developing cures for our most deadly diseases into the hands of organisations motivated primarily by profit not by public health and have failed to put in place the necessary incentives and regulations to counteract these conflicts of interest.
This issue has also recently been recognised on a wider level by the Council of Europe, which has produced a draft resolution blaming conflicts of interest for the lack of cost effective and therapeutic new drugs in recent years and recommending market reforms to restore the primacy of public health interests (http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=22030&lang=en).
As if more indicators of a failing system were needed, consider the following questions. Why have no lasting cures been found after decades of investing billions of pounds in drug research? Why is it when the newspapers hail the latest breakthrough in cancer treatment it turns out that it is only expected to extend people's lives by just a few months? Why have the UK's cancer strategies concentrated on measures to gradually extend survival periods, which simply defer death, rather than measures to encourage development of lasting cures? Why are there no published statistics on how many cancer patients have actually been cured of cancer and only statistics on how many people have survived it for just 5 or 10 years instead, even though many of those 'survivors' still have cancer and have to live with the suffering it causes? What is behind the many accounts of people who have cured themselves of cancer using non-medical means? How did they do it without the help of billions of pounds of funding available to the drug companies? Why are there so many accounts of promising discoveries in research laboratories that are not developed and tested in clinical trials because of their limited commercial potential?
It's easy to get the impression that the whole subject of finding lasting cures is just being avoided - we are not measuring how many people have been cured, we don't have plans aimed at developing cures and we fail to follow up all opportunities that might lead to cures.
Steady progress has undoubtedly been made on improving short-term survival rates over the last 40 years and excellent research work is being done by scientists and academic institutions to discover new approaches, but efforts to turn these discoveries into new drugs that cancer patients can access are being thwarted by a dependency on commercial imperatives not just therapeutic benefit; all our cancer research efforts come to nothing if new discoveries don't have the potential to generate big returns for the investors who fund drug delivery; the shareholders of pharmaceutical companies.
With one person dying from cancer every eight seconds and drug companies raking in unparalleled levels of profit, this scale of profiteering from human suffering is morally incomprehensible. We've been waiting far too long for profit-motivated organisations to find cures that are not in their interest and it would be naive to expect anything different to happen without fundamental change. Enough people have died, enough people have suffered and enough profits have been made - we need fundamental change to ensure that lives are put before profits, for the sake everyone dying for a cure.
I am aware that the Government is currently considering a new cancer strategy and also of your new role as a Patron of the charity Topic of Cancer, which I have recently become involved with myself. Now is the time to act on the issues that I've highlighted and I'm asking you as my MP to let me know what you can do to help press for major change. We desperately need market reforms to address the very obvious conflicts of interest that are slowing down the delivery of cancer cures and we need a cancer strategy that isn't scared to pursue what cancer patients really want - lasting cures not short term treatments. I would like to see the Government lead a global task force to find and develop genuine cures for cancer, to seek international consensus on a goal to cure 80% of cancers and to collaborate with other countries to combine research efforts and tackle the major barriers to progress.
I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this further.
Please share the link to this letter with own MP if you agree with the issues I'm highlighting and ask what they can do to help.