Our real enemy? Hint: It isn't the terrorists.

By Steve Kirsch

Terrorists are just a distraction. The real enemy is government stupidity.

Here's how I know that.

Last week, I was diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer called Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia (WM).  Because it kills, on average, only about 1,200 people per year, it's considered an orphan disease so it gets very little money and attention from the government and drug companies. It's basically a death sentence. I have a little more than 5 years to live.

As I learned more about my disease, some of the most significant things I learned were:

  • the lifetime risk of developing cancer is 1 in 2 for men and 1 in 3 for women
  • there is a 25% chance that you will die from cancer
  • 500,000 people die from cancer each year
  • the government spends about $5 billion a year on research; $114M of which is spent on non-Hodgkin's lymphomas collectively, but zero dollars are spent on WM specifically.
  • Only 8% of the research proposals to the NIH get funding. Researchers spend about 30% of their time writing grant proposals. Since 92% are turned down, this is an enormous waste of our most precious medical talent. Even prominent, highly decorated researchers such as Ken Anderson at Harvard, only have 8% of their research proposals granted.
  • our society spends $200 billion a year on medical care for cancer victims (40 times the amount we spend on prevention)
  • Gleevec is proof that we now have the technology to create real "wonder drugs" that cure cancers that were previously untreatable
  • the researchers on my particular cancer said that they could efficiently deploy more funds to accelerate their research. They are confident that they can create a "wonder drug" for my disease. They just lack the funds. They get zero dollars from the government now.
  • the research dollars for cancer have been going down every year in real dollars for several years now
  • cancer research has never been a national priority

To put the cancer numbers in perspective, a disease called "terrorism" in the US kills, on average, about 224 people per year. Approximately 0 people per year are killed by terrorists from Iraq. At that size, it should be categorized like my disease as an orphan disease and it should get no government funding at all. Yet, we spend over $100 billion a year fighting it in Iraq alone. Not only that, but every year, four times as many lives are lost fighting it, than are directly killed by the disease itself! In short, we've save more lives by not fighting it at all. Even worse is that the more money we spend fighting this disease, the more prevalent it becomes and the more people unnecessarily lose their lives!

So instead of putting our dollars where they would do the most good and save the most lives, our government does the exact opposite: we allocate our dollars in such a way as to maximize the number of people killed. In fact, it is hard to conceive of a more inefficient allocation of resources. This is government stupidity at its finest. Here it is in black and white:

Cause of death Number of US deaths per year $ allocated per year by US government to prevent those deaths
Terrorism 224 $100 B
Cancer 500,000 $5 B
Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia 1,200 zero. There are also 0 FDA approved drugs for this disease.

Perhaps we are spending all this money in Iraq because we have data that if we do not, then terrorists from Iraq will kill, on average, 10 million Americans each year since that is the only way you could justify the dollar expenditure. That is an interesting projection since as far as I know, no American inside the US has died at the hands of a terrorist who came from Iraq ever. Am I wrong? So the dollar allocation makes no sense to me. Does it make sense to you?

There is a better way. If I were running the country, here's what I would do.

First I would disarm the terrorists by by changing our behavior to eliminate all the reasons that people, even our allies, don't like us. I would pull out of Iraq now and vow never to invade a foreign country again unless we are either attacked by that country or we are part of a UN-sanctioned mission. I would offer our friendship and our help to every country where basic human rights are upheld.

Then I'd take all the money I'd save and invest it in areas that would save lives that would make everyone on the planet want us to succeed. In particular, I would be a leader in world efforts to combat disease and global warming.

I'd allocate money "in proportion to the benefit." For example, if we are spending $100 billion a year on global warming, I'd provide the biggest tax dollars to things that make the biggest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, if we are fighting disease, I'd spend the dollars allocated for fatal disease research in proportion to the number of deaths from that disease per year. If you can't spend those dollars on a disease because we lack a critical mass of good scientists doing first rate research in that area, then we should bank those dollars each year for use in the future (instead of losing it like we do now). And we should be very intelligent in our allocation within a disease by focusing our spending primarily on team science proposals that coordinate efforts across multiple disciplines to methodically step through the process required to cure a disease including discovery, diagnosis, and treatment. Funding an uncoordinated potpourri of individual investigator-initiated research proposals (hypothesis-driven basic research) should still be done, as there have been tremendous discoveries because of this (such as telomerase), but not at the expense of a coordinated effort.

Right now, blood cancers cause 11% of the deaths from cancer, yet receive only 5% of the funding (see  Hematological Cancer Research Investment and Education Act of 2002).

I would also immediately get rid of the government ban on stem cell research. People are dying because we forbid research that would save their lives. And who is benefiting from the ban on stem cell research? The stem cells themselves certainly aren't! Without the ban, those stem cells would have a chance of living. With the ban, those same stem cells have no chance at life: they are thrown in the trash and die. Nobody benefits. Again, government stupidity at its finest. Watch this excellent video on stem cells by Jerry Zucker.

That's what I would do. What would you do?

In conclusion, I think I've been a good citizen of the United States. I've created hundreds of jobs, I've paid tens of millions in taxes, and I've donated tens of millions of dollars to charitable causes including medical research, the environment, education, and the local community. The products of the five companies I've started have either directly or indirectly benefited virtually every person in the United States. My philanthropy has been so exemplary that I've been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a national Caring Award, an award given to only a few people each year. Now when I find that my life is threatened with a fatal disease, my government basically turns its back on me and tells me that my life is not worth saving. They will not even spend a dime on funding research to find a cure. Look, I'm not asking for any special treatment. All I'm asking for is to be treated fairly; that my government fund the research on my disease in proportion to the number of people who die from it each year. Am I asking too much?

Apparently not. There are heroes in Congress who can fix things. I told my story to my Representative (Anna Eshoo) and my Senator (Barbara Boxer) and both were shocked that this is happening and both have pledged to everything they can to help. Congresswoman Eshoo co-chairs the House Medical Technology Caucus, and serves as Vice Chair of the 21st Century Health Care Caucus. So I am optimistic that something can be done to right the wrongs of the past and to move forward in a way that treats the research into cures for these fatal diseases on a more equitable basis.

Geraldine Ferraro is a victim of multiple myeloma, a far more serious cancer than I have. In 2002, she was able to get Congress to pass a bill (S.1094 in the 107th Congress) that authorized spending $250M for research for blood cancers. It was first introduced June 22, 2001, and it was signed by Bush less than 1 year later on May 14, 2002. But the funds were never appropriated!! Eshoo told me that she needed to find a friend on the appropriations committee to get this done. So I called Mike Honda and they are looking into it.

Because we choose to invest money in Iraq instead of America, 500,000 people each year die from our decision. But it doesn't end there. The costs to our society of this under-funding also include approximately $200 billion per year in health care costs. It seems to me it would be far cheaper to invest the dollars to prevent the disease in the first place rather than pay the costs of inaction.

We do the same thing with global warming. Instead of investing the money now to reduce our emissions, we allocate huge amounts of money to make the problem worse, and then allocate money when disasters occur to clean up the mess. Not one single candidate running for president is talking about allocating money to pay for shutting down a single coal plant.


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