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Betting Against Cancer

Andrew Simpson says that Brazil should invest in the development of medicines to act against tumors

Six months ago the biochemist Andrew Simpson ? an Englishman who for more than twelve years ago had taken up residence here in Brazil, and during the last few years had been at the head of the large projects in national science, such as the sequencing of the genome of theXylella fastidiosa bacterium and the Human cancer Genome ? changed his job. He exchanged the São Paulo branch for the one in New York of the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute. In spite of his short time abroad, Simpson formulated an interesting reflection starting from his much closer contact with the large pharmaceutical companies, the owners of large budgets for the development of medicines, and with day-to-day contact with American scientists who dedicate themselves to the task of researching drugs to act against tumors.

In Simpson?s vision, right from the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, the treatment of cancer has not radically changed, above all with respect to the discovery of new medicines against the illness. Not even the genetic studies over the last few years have managed to push forward research into medicines to fight this evil. “There have been advances, that?s clear, principally in the question of the precocious diagnosis of tumors, but, in terms of therapies, we continue falling back upon surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy”, Simpson says.

In the researcher?s opinion, contrary to what many people think, the search for new medicines against cancer does not figure among the top priorities of the laboratories. “We cannot wait for the large companies to solve this problem for us”, he asserts. Last year there were some 340,000 new cases of cancer in the country and 120,000 deaths due to cancer. The biochemist believes that, from the point of view of multinational pharmaceutical companies, the potential market for new drugs against cancer is fractioned, divided up into various niches.

From this particular situation flows the apparent lack of willingness by private companies to invest heavily into research for medicines to act against this illness. By this rational, each type of cancer ? lung, liver, breast, skin, etc. ? will be looked upon by the laboratories as if it was another disease, with particularities that make it different from the other forms of tumors. “Each type of cancer represents a small market for the laboratories, who much prefer to invest in illnesses with a higher chance of generating blockbusters (medicines that will be relevant to the vast majority of the population)”, Simpson suggests.

Expensive research – And this is not all. Compared with the sufferers of chronic illnesses, such as hypertension, which, for decades on end, turned themselves into almost eternal users of medicines, the illnesses due to cancer do not represent, potentially, the type of consumer in the dreams of the laboratories. This is because the sufferers from tumors make use of medicines for a relatively short time. In Simpson?s opinion the illness is so serious that, once treated the patient with cancer rapidly stops using the medicines. “Either he is cured or he dies”, the biochemist comments.

Simpson believes that Brazil has to take up the fight and set up projects to develop medicines against cancer, even though the monetary figures necessary for this enterprise seem to be very high. “The country can have this ambition”, says Simpson, who is in the process of becoming a naturalized Brazilian. “And one cannot lose sight of the fact that the money invested in the development of a medicine is not spent all at the one time, but over a ten or fifteen-year period.” By his calculations, less than US$ 5 million per year would be necessary to start up a project that would look for a drug against cancer.

But from where would the money come to finance such an initiative? Simpson believes that all sources of funds could contribute in an undertaking of this nature, from public financial development of S&T at federal and state levels, to private initiative. “The universities need to establish partnerships with the national laboratories already in existence or with new biotechnology companies”, the biochemist emphasizes.

In the agricultural area, this is already happening. Simpson brings up the example of Allelyx, a biotechnology company set up through the Votorantim Group, which houses researchers originating from genome projects that sequenced pathogens of huge economic importance for the rural environment such asXylella fastidiosa , the agent that caused yellowing, an illness that affects the São Paulo orange groves. For the biochemist, the country should also look for sources of financing abroad for research into cancer. Once again he cites an example in the agricultural area to underline his thesis: “If the Americans asked the Brazilians to sequence the relative ofXylella fastidiosa that causes the illness known as Pierce?s Disease in vineyards, why can?t the National Cancer Institute (of the United States), which has an annual budget greater than US$ 3.5 billion, not also finance here research into drugs to combat tumors?”