Alzheimer’s and Cancer: Cures Act isn’t enough

Alzheimer’s and Cancer: Cures Act isn’t enough

By Ellen Ratner   
Cancer cells in culture from human connective tissue. (NCI)

WASHINGTON — President Obama will sign the bipartisan Cures Act this week. Although many people think it is a giveaway to the drug companies, it is a great first step.

Giveaways to the drug companies are nothing new. Let’s face it: The drug companies are an American industry, and they will make money no matter what.

James Pinkerton, my counterpart and friend, has been working on cures for a long time. He thinks America should put energy, time and money into cures, and he has a well-thought-out argument for it. This, he says, is a good beginning.

What is in this bill? First, the total price tag is $6.3 billion. That might seem like a lot of money, but it is not a lot in a very large national budget. It does speed up drug approvals, but Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “At a time when Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, this bill provides absolutely no relief for soaring drug prices. … The greed of the pharmaceutical industry has no limit, and this bill includes numerous corporate giveaways that will make drug companies even richer.”

I agree with Senators Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden. We need some relief for people to pay for the high cost of drugs; however, it does not mean that we should not have cures-based legislation. Congress needs to pass a bill so all Americans can have access to life-saving drugs. There can be arguments pro and con as to how drugs are approved, and this bill makes it easier than randomized clinical trials. I know people with end-stage cancer who can’t get into a clinical trial and are willing to try anything. Perhaps this bill will give them hope. The bill expands “biomarkers” to determine whether a drug works. It may not be the best way to run clinical trials, but Europe is moving in the biomarker direction, and we need to be able to be competitive and safe. There was even a “biomarker” summit in Berlin in October.

One thing this bill does is to create a new government position titled “assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse” within the Department of Health and Human Services. It is much needed in terms of coordination, and it is surprising that it has taken this long for recognition. Opioid use and abuse is everywhere in the United States, from small-town communities to large cities. If we are going to get a handle on it, we need to coordinate our efforts. The Cures Act does this.

The Cures Act helps fund research into Alzheimer’s disease in addition to cancer. Although the bill does help Alzheimer’s research, it is not enough. A recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association states,

“The cumulative costs of care for people with Alzheimer’s from 2010 to 2050 will exceed $20 trillion,” in today’s dollars. It also says, “[T]he number of Americans age 65 and older who have this condition will increase from the 5.1 million today to 13.5 million by mid-century.”

The Cures Act is a beginning, even if it is a partial giveaway to the drug companies, but it is not enough. We need more. As James Pinkerton says, “We WILL cure Alzheimer’s disease. We WILL cure cancer. The politics and everything will fall into place once a leader puts his or her neck on the line.”

I also have some free advice to my Republican friends: “All your plans for repealing Obamacare and perhaps also cutting Medicare – which I oppose, but then, I’m a Hillary/Bernie-loving liberal – will go a lot easier for you if you add some honey (cures) to the vinegar.”

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