Date: May 1st, 2010
After a long fought battle over how best to structure meaningful health reform legislation, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law in March. Many media sources are reporting on the negative financial impact some health reform provisions might have on the country, but little attention has been focused on positive aspects of the bill that could make a real difference in the lives of many people suffering from, or who will face, serious and life-threatening illnesses.
One element of the health reform bill in particular, the Cures Acceleration Network (CAN) holds tremendous potential for such a positive impact. The idea for CAN grew out of concerns that fewer and fewer treatments were making their way to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval, and even fewer were being made available to patients. Upon realizing this phenomenon, the creation of CAN was proposed by Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) in 2009 at the urging of the Parkinson’s disease community. It was adopted as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act this year.
Making Better Treatments a Reality
Over 5.2 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly half of people over the age of 85 are believed to have the disease. Unfortunately, there are only five Alzheimer’s treatments currently on the market and they can only help with symptoms of the disease. These benefits are important—for some people they allow them to maintain their functional independence longer than they would without medication—but the treatments will not change the course of the disease. Even if taking one of the available medications, those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease eventually fall victim to the same fate.
More than 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. Experts have identified aging as an important factor that contributes to Parkinson’s in some individuals. Like Alzheimer’s, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. A number of medications are available that can help some people manage problems with walking, movement, and tremors caused by the disease. But over time, the benefits of currently available drugs frequently diminish or become less consistent.
Diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s slowly take away the lives and independence of the individuals afflicted, severely affect families, and in many cases erode personal finances at the same rate at which function declines. But these are just a few of the diseases and conditions that disproportionately affect older adults. Unless better and more effective means of preventing, postponing, or reducing the impact of diseases of aging are found and made available to patients, the U.S. could face a crushing wave of infirmities and disabilities that carry enormous personal and societal costs as the Baby Boom generation ages.
Through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the United States spends approximately $30 billion on research each year. This money is critical as it helps widen the knowledge base about how diseases progress and what makes us vulnerable to certain illnesses. But one could ask why with such significant investment in advancing the understanding of diseases, we haven’t come closer to better treatments or cures for devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
Part of the reason for the lack of treatments for these and other diseases is that little attention has focused on the stage in the process between when scientists make new discoveries in the lab, and when these discoveries are used to inform the actual development of a new drug. This gap must be bridged in order to bring new treatments and potential cures to market, but has been historically ill-defined and inadequately funded.
The Cures Acceleration Network (CAN), created by the health reform bill, will start to bridge this gap by reducing the time between discovery and development of drugs through a new type of NIH grant. These grants will be made available for projects that are expected to more quickly move discoveries from the lab into the next generation of therapies. CAN will also help coordinate the efforts of all stakeholders in the drug development process so that therapies and treatments move more quickly into the hands of those who need them most.
Ensuring What CAN Will Be
More than 50 organizations currently support CAN, including the Alliance for Aging Research. These supporters are actively seeking $500 million in funding for the NIH so that it can implement the program, analyze research needs, and start the grants-making process. These organizations have called on the congressional Labor-HHS appropriations’ subcommittees to begin funding this important program in the Fiscal Year 2011 Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which is currently under consideration.
You can also do your part to make sure that Congress follows through on the commitment it made by creating CAN. Contact your members of Congress and senators to let them know you support CAN. Encourage them to appropriate funds for the NIH in Fiscal Year 2011 so that it can start this important work as quickly as possible. Hopefully it will help bring us closer to the better treatments and cures we all strive for.