Corporate Cash and Curing Diabetes: People vs Profits


There are two generally prevailing ideas about the thorny relationship between pharmaceutical companies and diabetes research.

# 1: Pharmaceutical companies don’t want to cure diabetes because a cure would cost them billions in yearly revenue.

# 2: Pharmaceutical companies are the only ones with the resources and expertise to cure diabetes, and they are working day and night to come up with a cure.

I’ve literally traveled the world reporting on and writing about clinical research and big corporations involved in it, and I can say the truth between these two statements is somewhere in the middle.

Corporations who specialize in clinical research and healthcare almost certainly are not working together to prevent finding a cure for diabetes. That’s because these companies don’t do anything together. They are intensely competitive. These guys would cross a highway at rush hour without looking left or right to avoid eye contact with one another. They typically do not meet, share research, collaborate, or otherwise commingle resources or information in any way. The idea of a corporately sponsored conspiracy being hatched and maintained to cure or not cure diabetes, or any disease, is laughable.

No healthcare corporation, or pharmaceutical company, could cure diabetes in the first place. No disease has ever been cured or eradicated by a corporation or a company. Ever. The resources needed to just scratch the surface of curing any disease, never mind one as complex and mystifying as both type one and type two diabetes, is beyond the reach and scope of even Exxon Mobil on its best day. Simply attempting to cure diabetes will require an open and transparent massing of resources, research, data, skill, and money that can only be accomplished through long-term partnering between universities, private contributors, and corporate interests held together and strictly monitored by government oversight.

What is frequently lost in the debate about whether companies who profit from diabetes are responsible in any way for eradicating the disease is that corporations are corporations first, and healthcare providers second. By statute, the first goal of any publicly held corporation is to increase shareholder investment.

This isn’t a knock on corporations. It’s merely to say that this is usually the first priority of corporations, no matter how many PBS shows they sponsor or how many times they tout the progress they’re making to make diabetes deader than the dial phone. Whether a corporation sells soap or test strips, its primary concern is selling not curing. Any talk from any corporation about curing anything, no matter how truthful and sincere those efforts it might be—and they frequently are—is also designed to burnish its public image and increase its sales.

That, however, does not mean corporations never, ever sincerely contribute efforts to cure diabetes. Some corporations act out of a sense of social and ethical responsibility and they aggressively invest in potential cures or better treatment because it’s the right thing to do.

Two examples illustrate the poles between those corporate interests that have only an outright mercenary interest in healthcare and those who contribute to curing such deadly diseases as diabetes.

When I was in Uganda researching a book I gained a valuable insight that sheds light on how cynical companies tat develop and provide heath care products can be. I was in Africa researching clinical trials, specifically trials to come up with new ways to treat and cure HIV and AIDS. I was speaking to a priest who was getting his masters degree in clinical research. I mentioned how the many corporately sponsored clinical trials by western companies in Uganda was surely a benefit to people who otherwise might never see a doctor, or receive any medical treatment at all.

He asked me why I thought companies were in Uganda researching HIV and AIDS. I said because so many people in Africa and around the world are dying of it and if they come up with a cure through research, lives would be saved.

“Yes, that might be so,” he said, “but more people in Africa die of malaria and tuberculosis than die of AIDS.”

Then he pointed out that there are few, if any, corporately sponsored clinical trials taking place in Africa researching new ways of treating or curing malaria and tuberculosis. Why? Because while people in Europe and the United States—people in the economically privileged West—get HIV and AIDS, they do not generally get malaria and tuberculosis. There’s no paying market for drugs to treat or cure malaria and tuberculosis they way there is for anti-HIV and AIDS drugs, so malaria and tuberculosis don’t get researched by healthcare companies.

On the flip side of this reprehensible corporate activity are companies like Novo Nordisk. Novo not only was a founding partner of the Oxford Centre for Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism in 1999 along with Britain’s National Health Service and Oxford University, Novo was the one who came up with the idea and approached the University and the government to set it up in the first place. Since its founding OCDEM has contributed significantly to increasing the opportunities for diabetes treatment, and a possible cure, through clinical physiology, clinical trials, Beta-cell function, lipid metabolism, genetics, islet cell transplantation, translational research, and more. It is also a template for developing future partnerships that can effectively address tomorrow’s challenges.

These two examples demonstrate that there is not one, blanket answer as to whether healthcare corporations are helping or hindering the efforts to find a cure for diabetes. If you want to be accurate when talking about corporate influence on finding a cure for diabetes the best thing to do is research the corporation or corporations you’re talking about, and look at it always on a case-by-case basis. Either that or shelve the conspiracy theories, stick to the middle, and always consider the possibility that any cure will probably have a corporate contributor helping to make it happen. 

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4 years ago

At $400.00/bottle for insulin big pharma does not want a cure for type1 diabetes to happen

9 years ago

Thanks so much for this, Alex. A much needed balanced and intelligent analysis. 

Moira McCarthy
9 years ago

Fantastic answer to a question asked so many times. From here on when I am asked it, I can share this blog. Excellent.

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