Sunday, April 07, 2019

How Healthy are we? Pondering the status quo on World Health Day

The good folks at JDRF woke me up on a lazy Sunday morning with an email about April 7th being World Health Day. As I lay in bed listening to some Carnatic Music renditions (a form of South Indian music), a sometimes-morning routine for me on weekends, I noodled on the topic of health. For a while now, since we heard about the second ever patient to be rid of HIV, I have been thinking about writing a post about how slow progress in medicine has been, and how much progress is yet to be made.

Yes, the post is somber in many ways, but the goal here is not to depress or take away from the progress we have made, but to serve as a yardstick for where we need to go from here.


The HIV virus is the most impacting of several that jumped to humans from other animals - a phenomenon termed Zoonosis. Humans have been suffering from HIV infections and its consequence, AIDS, for just about 5 decades now, and we have so far cured TWO patients, and that is, only because of their special circumstances!

Given the fatal consequences, and the innumerable deaths the virus has led to, it stands in stark contrast to other victories of the past, such as against smallpox, another consequence of Zoonosis.

Yes, the HIV virus is very tricky and is ancient (it appears the Chimpanzees fought it off millennia ago). However, it shows that for all our understanding of chemistry, biology, microbiology, virology and genetics, we are as of now, quite unequal to the task.

And as I mentioned above, both patients who are in remission for HIV had special circumstances, and their doctors were courageous, taking more risks than most have. And that is one of several problems I wish to discuss in this post.

2. Cancer

Yes, decades of promises and billions of dollars we have no cure for cancer, except for the most incidental cases. In fact, we don't even understand cancer well enough. Theories have come and gone, resembling fads of yesteryears.

For the most part, cancer therapies resemble what I call "fancy bloodletting"with the rare exception, such as with thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer, in some cases can be cured by injecting radioactive Iodine, which the thyroid gland laps greedily, as it evolved to (it will take up Iodine, radioactive or otherwise, that is). You then wait as the radioactive Iodine destroys the cancerous thyroid cells.

You may then ask, why we haven't found extended this type of solution to mos types of cancer. Well, we haven't done a good job of understanding genetics, biomarkers and the other aspects of biological science which would provide us with the tools necessary to advance cancer therapy past horrifying drugs or radiation.

I personally find it appalling that it is not illegal to use "inoperable tumor" as an excuse to send a patient home to die!

3. Chronic "Lifestyle" Diseases

Now, we all share the blame for this. As societies prosper, especially in developing countries like India, unhealthy lifestyles are leading to High Blood Pressure, Obesity, Diabetes and other conditions that cause decline in Quality of Life and in some cases, also lead to mortality. In the past couple of decades, there has been some modicum of progress with respect to blood pressure (no, NOT renal denervation, more on that in a minute), diabetes and cardiovascular care, but people are making themselves sicker faster than medicine can catch up. More awareness will get us part of the way, but this is one of those areas of health that can be tackled as a team effort.

4. Barbarism, Renal Denervation and the Poverty of R&D

When I first learned of renal denervation, I was immediately alarmed. It continues to irk me today, that this was not the universal reaction. Maybe I am overly sensitive to such nonsense, which is whata this is, because I have come across this before. I was once an intern at a company that burned millions of dollars (!) on the path to treating migraine with visual aura by closing the inter-atrial septum. Yeah!

Renal Denervation is based on some "research" around the middle of the previous century, in a Mary-Shelley-esque manner, someone toasted renal nerves to notice a drop in blood pressure. Without much further research into the long term effects of doing this, someone dusted this off the basement of some library and turned it into Ardian, which Medtronic then hyped the medical device industry into a frenzy, by ridiculously overpricing Ardian during the acquisition.

I do not buy the theory that Medtronic "botched' the clinical trials. I think humanity is lucky in that pharmaceuticals have progressed enough to be better than the weed-killer approach to blood pressure management.

What we should truly focus on is this - the medical device industry is really behind the curve on basic research. Too much of the focus is on development, some of it quite mindless, like the use of drills to remove arterial plaque!

This poverty of R&D efforts is one of the key reasons why progress in medicine has been so slow. 

5. Private Fraud and other Misbehavior

Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos are but the latest examples of people and organizations behaving badly. History is full of such examples, and this is in fact how the FDA came into existence. That, there is an assault underfoot to water down the FDA will be discussed momentarily.

The way some companies approach regulations is not as the framework to work within, but the dilapidated fencing to test aggressively for weaknesses. The lack of ethics causes problems for medicine and society.

6. Bad Governance

Just a couple of days ago, I posted about the secret database FDA maintained and helped an unknown number of medical devices cover up a further unknown adverse medical device events, masking the true limits of such devices and the harm caused by them. Spanning multiple administrations, this struck a blow to the very heart of why the FDA was created in the first place.

World over, many governments are undermining healthcare, in more ways than one, eventually harming both current and future generations.

7. Medicine Inequality

Under-served populations suffer from many inequalities in medicine. The aged, women, people below the poverty line, entire regions of the planet - several cohorts constitute under-served populations. Pricing is one. Access is another. The deliberate act of making medical devices disposable, fundamental to the chosen business model for many organizations in the industry is another. Patents, regulatory pathways, corporate greed - the factors abound. Suffice it to say, much work remains to be done.

Conclusion - Opportunities abound! 

The aforementioned points can be seen one of two ways. One way would be to be angry and depressed. The more positive approach would be to see all of these as opportunities ripe for innovation to cause true, lasting change.

That is the purpose and spirit with which this post was written.

Rooting out unethical behavior, bad governance, downright criminal behavior, making medicine affordable and equal, causing real technological progress, improving Quality of Life (QoL), reducing morbidity and mortality are all challenges we can take up and whittle down!

So, Happy World Health Day!

As usual, if you want to be reminded of the event annually, here is an event:

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