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23 January, 2007

A Cure For Cancer

New research suggests that cancerous cells have an odd way of metabolising sugars. They turn off their mitochondria (the little organelles within cells that would normally do the job) and use another process called glycolysis. Since it is the mitochondria which control apoptosis in cells (a self-destruct mechanism which is triggered when a cell is malfunctioning) the cancer cells go on living – and multiplying – despite being defective. So a drug that could turn the mitochondria back on in cancer cells would be great news because then apoptosis would kick in and kill the cancer.

Well, the drug exists. And it is cheap to produce. It is called dichloroacetate (DCA) and – in the lab at least – it is effective against almost all cancers. (Check this blog posting for more background and a small caveat.) Yet the pharmaceutical companies are not rushing to do the trials and get it into production. In fact, they have no interest at all – because DCA was not patented and therefore there would be no monopoly on it and therefore no big bucks to be made. Any work on the drug will have to be funded by research grants and charities.

Sometimes the stupidity, the callousness, the sheer inhumanity of the world we have made for ourselves is shocking. Stories like this one tempt us to rail against the greed and cruelty of the big pharmaceutical companies. They have the resources to bring this drug to market faster than anyone else, yet they will stand by and let people die rather than lose money by doing so.

But the problem is not the wicked pharmaceutical companies, it is the capitalist system under which they operate. The directors of these corporations are required by law to optimise the return on investment of their shareholders, balancing costs against short- and long-term returns. Spending a company’s time and money on developing a wonder-drug to cure cancer, knowing that there would be very little return to the shareholders would be a criminal offence. The directors of the company can do nothing about this even if they wanted to.

Or could they?

Of course, they can invest tens of millions in sports stadiums and racing yacht sponsorships, but that’s marketing and will allegedly improve profits. Supposedly, it raises the company’s profile and improves its public image to have its name on a formula 1 racing car, or a footballer’s shirt. Obviously curing cancer isn’t considered good enough publicity. Or is it just that the senior execs wouldn’t get to watch the game from their corporate boxes if the marketing budget was blown on worthwhile things instead of sports sponsorships?

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