Advances in healthcare are occurring at a break-neck pace. Cancer, HIV, AIDS, malaria, diabetes-- vaccines, treatments and eventual cures for these diseases are at the forefront of current biomedical research and discovery. But lack of funding threatens to shut down research operations from coast to coast and members of the Healthcare panel are on the war path.
"Our current health, social and immigration policies are at odds and unraveling some of the advancements we've made overall," said Steffanie Strathdee the Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences at UC San Diego. "We need to invest in the future, but some of answers are right in front of us. We know needle exchange works, but that policy is danger of being overturned and we're in the process of taking away women's reproductive rights."
Strathdee outlined the social conditions and environments that promote unhealthy choices in our society that included incarceration (the US is #1 in the world in percentage of its population that's incarcerated), deportation (the US is also #1), loss of women's reproductive rights, and the war on drugs. She also cited what a lack of funding will do to the future of research in America.
"[As a country] if we don't invest in the NIH and CDC...we are going to hurt any advancements being made and we are going to lose future innovators and trainees," said Strathdee.
Carl Deiffenbach, the Director of the Division of AIDS at the NIH gave a similar battle cry, only he called on the private sector to help with that investment. When Atlantic editor Corby Kummer asked if the private sector was perhaps asked to shoulder a disproportionate level of the burden, Dieffenbach responded with, "No, it's not doing enough...if anything they're running away from the problem."
One of his suggestions to bring down the cost of AIDS treatments was to start developing injectables that could be administered once a quarter or at most once a month. He claims that not only will these treatments be cheaper since they are administered less frequently; they would also help to alleviate supply chain and adherence problems.
The emotional energy in the room had an electrical charge as panelists spoke about the detriment current funding cuts are having on innovation and the evolution of healthcare, but perhaps the most shocking revelations came from panelist James Hildreth, Dean and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis.
First, he spoke of a vaginal cream his lab was developed, that when applied to the walls of the vagina like spermicide, it had a 40% efficacy rate of killing HIV. He is hopeful the new cream his lab is developing will have a 100% efficacy rate.
Then later, once prompted by Kummer, he described the discovery his lab made in new ways to fight viruses.
"Viruses must enter a cell to replicate, it's a modest genome but has complex biology. In doing research, we saw that if you remove cholesterol from the cell, the virus cannot replicate... Since many viruses are contained in a lipid shell, they also depend on cholesterol to replicate," Hildreth said.
Upon preventing the synthesis of cholesterol, or by injecting a sugar that dissolved the cholesterol, his lab was able to prevent the virus from replicating. This is development is on the cutting-edge of HIV/AIDS research and has implication for the treatment of multiple diseases, but as Hildreth pointed out, unless we continue to fund projects like his, future treatments could go undiscovered.
"We have tremendous tools at our disposal and this is a very exciting time to be in research, but we need funds available to be able to do our work," said Hildreth.
What do you think? Does the private sector have a moral obligation to step and fund research where the government can't? Or does the responsibility lay solely on the shoulders of government agencies like the NIH and CDC?
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