We have a lot of reason to be hopeful for the future of health in our country. Scientists in the United States have made incredible strides in the way they detect and treat illnesses, creating treatments and cures that would have never seemed possible or even a moonshot dream just a few decades ago. It is even more inspiring that Congress and leaders in Washington, D.C., are listening.
I have been involved in health care for several decades – doing everything from treating patients to working in Washington, D.C., to try and shape the health innovation ecosystem. From my time at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, as the director of the National Cancer Institute, and Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, I have witnessed many breakthroughs and watched as the federal government tried to grapple with a scientific community that was moving forward much more quickly than the system regulating it. Thanks to leaders in Congress, that could all change soon, and we we could instead see a health care system designed to support its scientists and encourage continued innovation.
For more than two years, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has been working with Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and his colleagues in the House of Representatives on legislation to support the cycle of cures. This kind of hopeful, productive, and forward-looking work is not what you would think was happening in Congress if you were to simply watch cable news.
The Senate and Obama Administration are both in on the effort, too, with the Senate making progress on its health innovation package and Vice President Biden leading the way on the cancer moonshot initiative.
Need more proof? Sean Parker, known for Napster and Facebook, recently threw $250 million of his own money into curing cancer. If a $250 million personal investment does not indicate confidence, I am not sure what does.
These leaders in Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley alike recognize how much promise the future of medicine holds. Ask any scientist in the industry and you will learn about a different new treatment that is currently in development. Whether it is targeting specific genes or using immunotherapy and strengthening a patient’s immune system rather than using chemotherapy to treat cancer, science, technology and health care can do amazing things for patients today and shine a bright light on the future health of our nation.
In order to keep this innovation machine thriving we must continue to invest in our brightest minds. Not only does investing in health and science mean patients today have better treatments and patients tomorrow may not have to suffer at all, but it also has incredible economic benefits.
Take Polio, for example. When the United States experienced a Polio outbreak in the mid 20th Century, the solution was iron lungs. At the time iron lungs cost about $1,500. Instead, Jonas Salk created a vaccine and nearly eradicated the disease.
This brilliant American researcher eliminated what could have been an enormous cost on society both personally and economically because scientists were able to continue working. In fact, Michael Milken estimates that the polio vaccine “has saved the United States an estimated $800 billion since 1955.”
Today there are scientists and researchers across the country working on treatments and cures for countless other costly diseases and illnesses.
There is perhaps no better example than Alzheimer’s. A recent report from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, PhRMA, notes that there are currently 77 medicines in development for Alzheimer’s.
A recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the United States $236 billion in 2016. The Association notes, “Family caregivers spend more than $5,000 a year caring for someone with Alzheimer’s,” and there’s no doubt that this care also impacts his or her work and family life. Caring for a family member or loved one with Alzheimer’s “had an estimated economic value of $221.3 billion.”
Already, this is an enormous burden on society, but consider that, “By mid-century, someone in the United States will develop the disease every 33 seconds,” and it is abundantly clear that we need to continue to support the scientists diligently working on cures and treatments, and the advances in science and technology give us reason to hope for the future.
Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach served as director of the National Cancer Institute and Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 2005-2009.