Despite all of the roadblocks and frustrations of Modern America, we are living in a golden era of medical discovery.
What is this holiday season all about? Is it just about eggnog and candy canes? Many would say the birth of a savior, others would say a jolly fat man who somehow brings gifts for everyone, and some would say a festival of lights. Most would agree on one thing; the Christmas season is a time when we pause to appreciate miracles of old. Yet far too often we forget to appreciate the miracles we see unfolding right before our own eyes.
As an executive, investor, and patient, I understand first hand the agonizing frustration that too many American families experience today when they feel blocked from medicine that they badly need. There is no doubt that our society should improve, indeed that our society MUST improve. But have we paused to consider how miraculous it is that medicines are available in the first place?
I am not old enough to remember Polio or Measles. By sheer good fortune, those once deadly scourges had been confined to the dustbin of history by the time I was growing up in America. We were terrified of AIDS. We weren’t terrified of Hepatitis C, but we should have been. One disease ravaged well known celebrities such as Freddy Mercury for all the world to witness the devastation. Another lurked silently in the shadows, slowly murdering thousands of victims every year.
Today, I am proud and somewhat amazed to say, neither disease kills very many people in the Developed World. The invention and dissemination of antiviral medication has reduced HIV to an annoyance for most people, and we have learned that such medicines can actually be used to prevent infection altogether. Hepatitis C, which has been mercilessly attacking human livers for thousands of years, has been cured. Not treated. Not contained. Cured. One day I will speak of Hep C just as my grandparents had recalled the terror of Polio.
Yes, you may say, it’s great that our ingenious society has engineered these medicines, but they are too expensive for average people to get the treatment they need. True for a while, but not for long! Just ask the executives at Gilead pharmaceutical, the pioneers in the Hepatitis C market. Their runaway success and record high prices have attracted fierce competition from other scientists eager to steal Gilead’s profits. And guess what? Prices have dropped dramatically. A disaster for Gilead has turned into yet another miracle for the human race. We hear so much about the abuses of Capitalism, the business innovations gone terribly awry. But let’s appreciate a wondrous fact when it’s right in front of us; sometimes Capitalism works.
2018 was also the year that we saw dramatic acceleration in cancer Immunotherapy. In our age old battle against cancer, we have tried cutting cancer, burning cancer, and poisoning cancer. These therapies achieved meager results at best, and came with a very serious downside; we were often cutting, burning, and poisoning the patient as well. The 2018 Nobel Prize was awarded to researchers James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for discovering a simple, astonishing fact: given just the right tweak, your body will ruthlessly hunt down and destroy cancer all on its own.
It has become common to hear stories of tumors vanishing and patients living much longer than anyone expected. Currently, there are more than 1000 trials of different cancer combinations under way around the world (NYT, 8/12/17). We still have a long way to go; for every story of patients back from the dead, many cancer cases still confound our best medicine. But why don’t we pause to consider how remarkable it is that we can cure anyone at all? During Christmas, 1918, the best help your doctor could give you would be to help you die peacefully.
I am proud to say that a significant portion of my time and treasure are devoted to helping create new and better cures. Yes, I am looking to make a buck. Hopefully many, many bucks. But I don’t earn anything unless my portfolio companies constantly pump out new and better cures. There are abuses in the system. There are failures of Capitalism, and violations of trust. But mostly an investor can do very well by doing good if he or she owns a chunk of America’s innovation machine.
If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyful New Year.
Peace and Goodwill towards Men.
-The Sick Economist