Finding Common Ground in Medical Science and Public Policy

“Science” is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as, “the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the natural and physical world, or knowledge obtained about the world by watching it carefully and experimenting.”

Regardless of our age, profession or political ideology, science has touched us all in immeasurable ways. From the personal technology we rely upon to the research achievements we universally applaud to the medications that help improve and extend lives, the common thread is a continued push for scientific advancement.

As I arrived in Washington last week to meet with members of Congress and their staff, I was curious about how much of a disconnect exists between public policy and the pace and scale of life-changing science. My career has been largely spent working with clinicians to conduct important clinical trials in which we evaluate new therapies in attempts to find better treatments for serious illnesses. I am focused on conducting trials, not opining about policy or politics. But I am mindful that we will only achieve the breakthroughs of the future if policy supports science, especially as it relates to our collective fight against disease.

Like millions of Americans, I’ve lost multiple loved ones — my father, grandmother and mother-in-law — to cancer. My sister-in-law and several close friends are cancer survivors. I’ve seen the devastating physical and psychological toll the disease has taken on them. And working as a clinical pharmacist at a children’s hospital in Chicago showed me firsthand the indiscriminate cruelty of life-threatening illness.

The good news — in fact, it’s as exciting as anything I have seen in my years in this field — is that we are literally rewriting the book on how to combat the diseases that diminish and end lives. Immunotherapy, cell therapy, regenerative medicine, precision medicine and genomic-based diagnoses and treatments are just a few of the many examples that illustrate this new era of medical invention. There used to be just a handful of medicines available to treat cancer. Now there are more than 150 and each can be more effective for a given patient. As we learn more about the makeup of cancer cells and how to attack them, the idea of a cure is far from inconceivable.

Consider the immunotherapy that has rid President Carter and scores of other patients from metastatic melanoma. While it may be premature to refer to these results as a “cure,” they represent a substantial step forward against the deadliest form of skin cancer — a disease that will be diagnosed in more than 76,000 Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society. There are more promising drugs for Alzheimer’s disease in the pipeline than ever before. I was proud to be part of a team that developed a treatment for invasive fungal infections, particularly sinister conditions that attack those with compromised immune systems (cancer patients having recently undergone chemotherapy, for example) and have extraordinarily high mortality rates.

The past decade has seen astronomical progress in our ability to enable people to live longer, healthier lives, and the next decade could make this past one seem like the horse-and-buggy era. Techniques and approaches once regarded as fledgling and experimental are now bringing great well-being to millions and opening the door for even more game-changing progress. Yet, we often hear policymakers talk as if this innovation is a given and an economic problem to be dealt with, rather than an invaluable asset to be nurtured and optimized.

There seems to be increasing skepticism regarding the hurdles that biopharmaceutical companies face in the research and development of a medicine. I can assure you: developing a new medicine remains a painfully long and arduous process. A study released this summer found that less than 10 percent of the drugs that make it to the first phase of clinical trials are likely to find their way to the marketplace. My peers throughout the industry experience setbacks and lessons learned far more frequently than successes.

We constantly strive to bring more efficiency to our development process. The continued emergence of precision medicine holds the potential to reduce the degree of trial-and-error in medicine, thereby potentially reducing downstream costs.

As to my curiosity regarding a possible disconnect between the state of the science and public policies, I’m not sure my sample size yielded a statistically significant conclusion. But I was heartened by the informed questions and the seemingly genuine interest in learning what a biopharmaceutical developer does every day. This gives me hope for a policy environment that energizes future medical discovery and continues to help shift the momentum in our war against disease.

If science has yielded us the opportunity to prevent loss of life and keep families together, we should all be accelerating this progress rather than putting on the brakes.

As a lifelong scientist, I choose the former.


Anne Keating, Pharm.D., is vice president of clinical science oncology at Astellas.

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