A few weeks ago, at a London conference, a representative of the Genome Therapeutics Corporation (GTC) announced that they have worked out the genetic blueprint of the Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria linked with stomach ulcers and gastric cancer.
But instead of handing over this vital information to the scientific community, GTC sold it for $22 million to Astra, the Swedish drugs company which makes anti-ulcer drugs. Not surprisingly, Astra doesn't seem to have much inclination to share this data with science at large, indicating to the magazine New Scientist ( September 30, 1995) that they would keep it secret if it were "deemed necessary". As a spokesman explained (and it's hard to argue, considering the price tag), "We are simply protecting our commercial investment."
The only other organization which has also worked out the sequence of the H pylori genome (as the blueprint is referred to) is Glaxo-Wellcome. For four years, they were working on the genome sequencing in Singapore, in collaboration with a laboratory in Cambridge, and like Astra, they may not be falling over themselves to hand it over to the world. Glaxo-Wellcome, it's wise to remember, produce Zantac, the world's best-selling drug, whose popularity has been slipping since it was discovered that many cases of ulcers were caused by H pylori and could be cured with antibiotics.
Government and the medical profession coat the pharmaceutical industry in a patina of altruism, as though making money is secondary to the beneficent race to end mankind's illnesses. They portray a spirit of largesse existing between the publicly funded scientific community and their counterparts in the drugs companies. But you have only to compare their separate languages to discover that the public and private sectors stand worlds apart. People like Stewart Cole, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, talk of international scientific cooperation, of "knowledge, insight, materials and goodwill" shared at large. Cole himself gave the GTC batches of bacteria causing leprosy and tuberculosis. In announcing the Astra deal, Bob Hennessey, chairman of GTC, on the other hand, was using words like "first rights to negotiate", of "anything that's exploitable".
I'm not blaming the drug companies if they decide to hoard this information; if I had to pay $20 million for something, I'd be a bit disinclined to hand all of it over to my rivals, either. All of us in private industry (including WDDTY) protect what we have to sell.
The real culprits are the US and UK governments for not funding parallel research, for allowing most of this work to be locked up in the private sector and relying on their pro bono inclinations to make public advances in medicine.The question is whether important general research which would benefit mankind should be subject to the vagaries of the marketplace.
As soon as there is a bottom line to tally, pro bono must accede to pro big bucks. As Hennessey bluntly put it, "Like it or not, we have a responsibility to our investors." So long as medical progress is for sale, you and I may have a long wait for a cure for cancer.