The Economics and Politics of XMRV

The Economics and Politics of XMRV
By John Herd

Health care is as much a financial industry as it is a medical science. The two drive each other. One can not survive without the other.

The provision of health care and scientific advancement rely upon a sound economic environment if they are to sustain themselves, let alone to move forward. Income creating is an important part of the equation.

Although it may be comforting to think of health care as an altruistic industry in which patient care always trumps economics, that is not and can not always be the case. Providing medical care and conducting medical research require the sustained infusion of funds.

Less than altruistic ambitions of acquiring economic profits also comes into play, both amongst medical practitioners and institutions. This too is not as negative at it may seem; were economic rewards not part of the equation it would be difficult to attract the numbers and quality of people [and institutions] to the medical field.

Driven by such economic factors, when new medical discoveries or technologies are found, the rush to the patent office often proceeds the acquisition of research grants or the writing of medical journal articles.

Some medical patents may pan out and be profitable, others may not. The patent office databases are full of medical patents that have not panned out or achieved their owner’s hopes. Other medical patents have panned out, becoming their owner’s pots of gold.

One would hope that the hunger for economic rewards would not hinder the advancement of medical research or patient care, but this is not always the case.

Annette and Harvey Whittemore in Reno Nevada had an altruistic goal; they wanted to find more effective medical treatments for their daughter who suffers from CFS. So too did they want to helps others who similarly suffered from CFS. Towards that goal they formed the Whittemore Peterson Institute and hired a similarly altruistic doctor, Judy Mikovits.

Their work in collaboration with other doctors discovered an association between xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) [and possibly a number of other illnesses].

When their discovery appeared on the medical stage with the publication of their first journal article (1), many others in the medical field [and CFS advocacy sector] envisioned their potential pots of gold.

What ensued was quickly escalating competition and politics as newcomers to XMRV research wanted their piece of the  scientific and potential economic pie.

Observers within the CFS community wondered why they were not seeing more evidence of replication studies, a hallmark validation component of the scientific process.

True replication studies use identical protocols. As such they only validate rather than delivering new protocols or treatments that can be carried to a patent office. Replication studies don’t reap economic and/or professional rewards. Instead we saw many studies spring up that used different protocols.

And not all pots of gold are singularly full of economic or professional rewards; some hold within them spheres of influence and other secondary factors.

And still other times the proverbial pot of gold may hold not an economic or professional reward, but the protection of a possessed agenda or bias.

Whatever the pot of gold may be, the competitive race to it can bring about a great deal of politics that sometimes becomes pretty ugly. Attempting to tarnish the credibility of the competition is one strategy that often comes into play.

On the XMRV stage we have seen a lot of evidence of such competitive politics aimed at the Whittemore Peterson Institute, the people there and their work. And what we have seen is the tip of the iceberg; far more has transpired behind the scenes.

In the end sound science prevails if there is enough funding to carry it forward.

This Thanksgiving I give thanks to all those at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for what they are trying to achieve, to those who are collaborating with them, and to all those who are economically making the work possible.

(1) Lombardi VC, Ruscetti FW, Gupta JD, Pfost MA, Hagen KS, Peterson DL, Ruscetti SK, Bagni RK, Petrow-Sadowski C, Gold B, Dean M, Silverman RH, and Mikovits JA. Detection of Infectious Retrovirus, XMRV, in Blood Cells of Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Online October 8, 2009.Science.

© John Herd, ’10
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