Monday, March 30, 2015

Big Pharma loves me . . . or does it?

As a starry eyed newlywed in San Francisco some thirty-three years ago, I bypassed the butter at the supermarket and brought home a tub of semi soft margarine. It was low-cholesterol, made with non-hydrogenated oils, and I felt like a health-conscious, savvy shopper.

My husband Robin was less impressed: "What on earth did you buy that for? I'm not eating that toxic … “(he used a brief, emphatic word unfit for publication). “You’d be better off with butter.”

Now, the annoying thing about Robin is that, at least in matters medical, he’s always right. Watching TV medical dramas, he beats the doc to a diagnosis every time. This shouldn't really surprise me given the impressive list of his medical credentials, but it’s still annoying.

In The Case Of The Soft Margarine, I rose to the defense of my purchase: I knew—I had read in a magazine—that hydrogenated fats were bad for you, oils were good. Therefore soft margarine was infinitely preferable to its hard cousin, stick margarine, or worse yet, butter. Research had proven it—scientific research.

The very mention of "research" brought on a whole stream of brief emphatic words; apparently this was something of a sore point with my husband. I soon found out why.

Robin had spent two years at one of the nation’s top medical schools, researching the causes of high cholesterol. He found that the liver manufactures approximately 80% of the cholesterol found in the blood; only the remaining 20% is dietary. So, assuming an impossibly rigorous diet with zero cholesterol, the greatest possible reduction would be a measly twenty percent. Moreover, it seemed that the liver would simply crank up its production to make up the dietary shortfall. He asked the obvious question, one nobody else seemed to be asking: what causes the liver to over-produce cholesterol, and how can it be regulated?

Following their doctors’ advice, millions of Americans take statins to lower their cholesterol. They endure unpleasant side effects in the hope of avoiding heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.  Robin’s research held out the promise of a non-toxic, low-cost way to help the liver regulate itself. The impact would be felt globally—statins are the most widely prescribed drug in the world. He typed up his proposal, got the approval of the head of department, sent it to the National Institutes of Health, and waited. 

The verdict came back: “Approved but not funded.” He tweaked the proposal a little to make it even more elegant and resubmitted it. Same result.

His head of department told him why it would never be funded: the good folk at the National Institutes of Health were not about to sanction any research that would hurt their friends in the drug industry. And if Robin’s hunch was correct, and a few dollars worth of thyroid hormone each month would regulate cholesterol production and make statins irrelevant, it would bankrupt the drug companies who are making billions of dollars per year from the sale of statins. That’s right, billions. From statins alone. Now, if there’s one thing the drug companies know how to do, it’s make a profit: in 2005, the thirty-three major drug companies made more money than the rest of the Fortune 500 combined. With stakes like these, small wonder the NIH only funds “research” that safeguards Big Pharma’s bottom line.

It’s amazing how many congressmen a few billion dollars can buy.

Hmm, I thought, if money is more important than saving patients from heart attacks and strokes, what about vaccines? Might the same principle apply? I set about some research of my own, No Funding Required.

What I discovered will be the subject of another blog.

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