Profit over people: why R&D is broken

SCITECHNew discoveries are made every day of the week. While institutions and laboratories around the world always seem to be reporting on a new cures to diseases, there are still plenty of terminal illnesses, new bacterial infections and viruses that seriously harm the human race. Why don’t these findings ever seem to go anywhere?

Money talks

Plain and simple, research and development (R&D) is severely flawed all over the world, including in Ireland. Money in the form of state funding and grants makes the research happen, and this opens the process to a huge amount of abuse by the wealthy people supplying the funding. One of the sectors in which this happens most is climate change research.

Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one of the most cited climate change deniers. He claims that global warming can actually be explained by fluctuations in the sun’s energy levels rather than man made climate change.

However, in late February this year, a Freedom of Information Act by famous NGO Greenpeace into Soon’s funding showed that he accepted nearly $1.2 million (¤1,109,052.18) from fossil fuel companies over the last decade, and failed to disclose the information in any of his 11 papers published since 2008. Furthermore, he received $131,000 from a multinational oil corporation, Exxonmobil, to study the Sun’s role in global warming. Dr. Soon declined to comment on the matter to any media sources.

Big pharma

In a lecture to his senior freshman course earlier this month, Dr. Tim Foster of College’s microbiology department spoke about why we are in the midst of a ‘discovery void’. In Ireland in particular, large scale pharmaceutical companies have pulled out of research and development on anti-infectives and antibiotics.

Foster explained how there is so much misuse of antibiotics that resistance is likely to develop very quickly, and so a new drug might only be worth money for a short period of time. He went on to detail how companies can make much more money from other medicines, and have turned their back on antimicrobial research. Even if a new infectious disease is running rampant through human population, big pharma is unlikely to act unless there is monetary gain involved.

Governments have begun to intervene in the problem across the world. In 2012, the US government out the GAIN Act into place. GAIN, or the Generating Antibiotics Incentives Now Act, guarantees a company an extra five years of market exclusivity when they develop a new antibiotic. Similar strategic plans such as the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria were also launched last year, however there is yet to be a large scale plan implemented in Ireland to stimulate research.


Potentially one of the biggest obstacles to research and development in Ireland and indeed the world is the ethics process. The ethics board of universities and research institutions try to ensure that experiments are carried out in the right conduct, however quite often they can become restrictive and limiting of the research potential. Quite often, our personal affections towards animals can cloud judgement on whether or not they should be used for experiment, and these emotions can severely affect the effectiveness of research protocol.

One of the highly contested areas where ethics and research clash quite severely is using psychoactive drugs to treat illnesses. Hallucinogenic substances found in magic mushrooms have a huge potential for treating addiction and anxiety in terminally ill patients. Research presented by American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) at an annual meeting in 2012 showed that psilocybin, the active hallucinogen in magic mushrooms, can treat anxiety in terminal cancer patients by allowing them to work through the feelings behind their distress. Furthermore, the substance has been shown to help quit smoking in the correct doses.

Another famous illicit substance, LSD or lysergic acid diethylamide, has been shown in several studies to severely reduce chronic alcoholism. In a large scale meta-analysis conducted by Norwegian scientists in early 2012, a single dose of LSD helped chronic alcoholics dramatically cut back or quit their drinking completely when used in conjunction with therapy. The therapy proved to be over 20% more effective when used in conjunction with LSD, and drugs used to combat alcoholism are now based on this research.

Unfortunately, red tape surrounding the importation and utilisation of these substances is extremely restrictive and only allows for very limited trials to be carried out. In most cases, scientists end up using research chemicals such as 251-NBOMe which are far less characterised and not as readily available and well understood as certain natural psychedelics. Due to the lack of any tight regulation surrounding these novel chemicals, they are also easily sold to outside buyers for recreational use which is one of the main reasons for such tight regulation of hallucinogens in the first place.

It is evident that drastic reform in the R&D sector is needed if we have any hope of leaving the discovery void, removing false research and bettering human life around the globe. However, the means by which we get there and what we choose to enhance are only the beginning of a long and lengthy process.

Dylan Lynch

Dylan is an SF Medicinal Chemist studying at Trinity College Dublin, and is the Science & Technology Editor.