23 January 2011
One of the more intriguing historical anecdotes included in “The $800 Million Pill,” my history of government-led drug discovery, involved the government’s long-running effort to screen natural products for their cancer-fighting potential. The National Cancer Institute ran the program between 1958 and 1982. Agency-funded scientists, both in-house and at universities across the U.S., screened 118,00 microbe-derived, 16,000 marine organism-derived, and 114,000 plant-derived extracts to see if they killed cancer. One botanist estimated nearly 6 percent of the world’s plant species had been subjected to an NCI-sponsored screen before the program was canceled.
What triggered this massive government undertaking? For centuries, shamans on Madagascar had used poultices made from rosy periwinkle as a folk cure for cancer. In the early 1950s, Eli Lilly, following their lead, chemically extracted the active ingredient from the pink flower to come up with vinblastine and vincristine, two early chemotherapy agents for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and childhood leukemia.
The government’s industrial-strength program was only slightly more successful than the shamans. It’s big success story was taxol, the extract of the Pacific yew tree. After decades of work, the government showed taxol was useful in temporarily holding back some solid tumors. Once proved in clinical trials, the government turned the finished product over to Bristol-Myers Squibb, which in turn proceeded to charge the public exorbitant sums for a product discovered on the taxpayer’s nickel.
Is history about to repeat itself?