Opinion: House drug bill dooms medical research

Peter Rheinstein

House lawmakers recently introduced the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which would enable government officials to set the price of lifesaving medicines. The bill would reduce pharmaceutical companies' revenues by a staggering $1 trillion over the coming decade.

The Lower Drug Costs Now Act would bring medical research projects to a screeching halt, dooming millions of patients to premature deaths from otherwise curable diseases, Rheinstein writes.

That would bring medical research projects to a screeching halt, dooming millions of patients to premature deaths from otherwise curable diseases.

Right now, America leads the world in medical innovation. We account for just 5% of the global population and 24% of the world economy, but create more than 50% of all novel drugs.

This high rate of innovation isn't a fluke. It's the direct result of an ecosystem that rewards innovators.

Thanks to such innovation, many once-fatal diseases are now manageable — or even curable.

HIV/AIDS death rates have tumbled 88% since drug companies introduced antiretroviral therapies in the mid-1990s. Cancer death rates have dropped 27% since they peaked in 1991. And earlier this decade, drug companies rolled out treatments that cure nearly 100% of patients with hepatitis C, a fatal liver disease.

Across the country, scientists are developing 4,500 experimental treatments.

But if lawmakers enable government regulators to set drug prices, these medicines will likely never come to market. Firms would have little prospect of recouping their research costs — much less turning a profit. So they wouldn't attract investors willing to fund the search for future treatments and cures. Millions of current and future patients will die from diseases that could have otherwise been treated.

My father died from a heart attack at age 53. Cardiovascular disease killed both my grandfathers. At age 76, I've already lived almost 50% longer than my father, and I've worked twice as long — all thanks to medical innovation.

With that genetic track record, I should be doomed. But like millions of other patients around the world, I take Lipitor to reduce my risk of heart attack and stroke. 

Lipitor and other statins were invented by American drug companies. They're now cheaply available as generics around the world. But imagine they didn't exist. Imagine if our country had not supported the research that produced these drugs.

Would scientists be able to attract funding for future Lipitors under the House bill? I worry.

In 25 years as a medical officer and senior manager at the FDA, I saw the power of American innovation over and over again. On consulting assignments with the World Health Organization, I witnessed how it helps patients in countries without the resources to develop drugs for their own special needs. 

Many lawmakers acknowledge the bill would cripple private-sector R&D, but they argue the government could simply assume a greater share of the research burden.

As a medical researcher and drug developer, I know that plan wouldn't work. The National Institute of Health does great research, but its employees focus on solving basic scientific mysteries. The agency doesn't have the infrastructure or personnel to turn insights into tangible new drugs.

Congress can — and should — find ways to make medicines more accessible. But the House bill isn't the right solution. If lawmakers gut America's research industry, the Lipitors of the future will never emerge from the lab.

Peter Rheinstein is president of the Academy of Medicine of Washington, D.C.