Allan Hugh Cole Jr., Ph.D.

Pharmaceutical giants forming venture capital groups is an interesting twist in drug development. We need innovative approaches like that to help create new medications. But they shouldn’t come just from the pharma industry. Personal sacrifice, political will, and a shared commitment to the public good must also play roles.

As a 50-year-old living with Parkinson’s disease, I have a vested interest in finding better treatments and cures for neurologic diseases. While some progress has been made with treating symptoms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, we still don’t have medications that slow or stop the progression of these diseases. I was happy to see that Pfizer added $600 million to its venture group early this month. It plans to invest at least a quarter of this in biotech firms working on treatments for neurological diseases, which affect tens of millions of people worldwide. That eased some of my concerns about the company’s decision to cease its own research and development efforts related to neurological diseases.

The purpose of these venture funds is to raise money for investments in biotech companies that conduct high-risk research that could potentially provide high returns. I applaud Pfizer’s decision to take a more expansive approach to developing new drugs and a broader set of options for investors.

Not everyone agrees. Some patients and advocates cried foul over Pfizer’s decision to stop its own neurological research programs.

I believe that it’s misguided to expect an entity whose main purpose is swift profits and healthy returns to shareholders to make decisions based on benevolence. I’m not suggesting that for-profit corporations can’t do benevolent work. They can and many do, including Pfizer. But that’s not their raison d’être. These companies exist to make money for their shareholders. It would be unreasonable to expect any company, drug makers included, to veer from their profit-driven missions.

Pfizer’s venture-group approach offers an alternative that holds promise for future research. We should look to nimble biotech firms and to academic research centers to do the difficult, time-consuming, expensive work of developing new drugs. But we must also provide incentives for this work through tax credits and more robust federal support. The latter requires political will, and that obliges concerned voters to hold elected leaders accountable for supporting publicly funded measures as well as privately funded ones, at least as much as pharmaceutical lobbyists hold leaders accountable for supporting the pharmaceutical industry’s interests.

We can also harness the profit incentive for good with the kind of financial engineering proposed by Andrew Lo, a former hedge fund manager. Focusing on the development of new cancer drugs, he proposed securitizing patents and other intellectual property related to the research that various entities are doing, regardless of whether they are public or private, large pharmaceutical companies or smaller biotech firms. Securitization entails pooling assets (for example, drug patents or other intellectual property) and selling them in the marketplace to investors who want to take on this diversified risk.

The megafunds Lo envisions would include the intellectual property of companies conducting higher-risk drug trials as well as those engaged in less risky ones. Investors would have more opportunities to own a “winner” because they’d be tied to several drug trials being conducted simultaneously by different companies.

But more is still needed.

Members of a just society have the responsibility to share their resources for the common good — in this case, finding treatments and cures for serious diseases. That benefits not only those who are ill but the larger society as well.

If for-profit businesses are not expected to be benevolent, then individuals should be willing to contribute their personal resources toward this end. For example, an individual might give to the National Institutes of Health as he or she gives to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research or to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. We should also advocate that more of our tax dollars go to the NIH. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are and give generously to entities working to find new treatments and cures, and to the foundations and political leaders that help them succeed.

If a moral argument isn’t persuasive, perhaps these numbers will be. Worldwide, 10 million people live with Parkinson’s disease and more than 44 million live with Alzheimer’s disease. Some predictions say that within 50 years the number of people living with Alzheimer’s will more than quadruple. In 2017, Alzheimer’s cost the United States more than $259 billion, and that is projected to rise to more than $1 trillion by 2050.

The need to develop better treatments for neurological diseases is dire and will intensify. We still have reason to hope, but we also have personal financial support to give and political work to do. We need these efforts as much as we need the pharmaceutical industry and good science.

Allan Hugh Cole Jr., Ph.D., is professor of social work and senior associate dean for academic affairs in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. @allanhughcole The piece represents the views of the author, not of The University of Texas at Austin or the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.