Giving Compass' Take:

• FasterCures identifies roadblocks to curing disease and outlines strategies for philanthropists to improve organizational effectiveness.

• What roadblocks are unique to your specific area of interest? How can partnerships help to reduce or remove roadblocks? 

• Learn why, for diseases like Alzheimer’s, finding a cure is only the first step toward impact

Despite decades of medical and technological advances, from the decoding of the human genome to stem cell science, from health information technology to targeted cancer therapies, our ability to translate exciting new discoveries into products that can help patients is severely lagging behind the pace of discovery. A formidable list of diseases for which there are no cures or even meaningful treatment options remains. The medical research enterprise is facing a serious productivity gap. The amount of
money invested by all sources—government, industry, philanthropy—has been increasing while the number of new products approved is decreasing or stagnant.6 It takes too long—on average 15 years from discovery to patients. It costs too much—well over $1 billion to develop a successful drug, including the cost of failures along the way. And the risks are high only 1 out of more than 5,000 compounds that enter the drug discovery pipeline will become an approved therapy. This trajectory is simply unsustainable.

Science is undeniably complex; for many diseases, the answers to even the most basic biological questions remain elusive. That being said, science is not the only reason for the slow momentum in clinical discovery and application. Among the many challenges that FasterCures has identified over the years are:

  • Increasing conservatism on the part of the largest investors in medical research—the federal government (through the National Institutes of Health, or NIH) and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries;
  • Significant cultural barriers in the academic research infrastructure and environment; and
  • A widening gap—referred to by some as a “valley of death”—in funding and support for translational research, which moves basic science down the path toward treatments and feeds critical clinical information back to the laboratory for investigation. While the costs at this stage of research are relatively low, the risk of failure is high.

Although private philanthropy is only a small share of overall spending on medical R&D in the United States (less than 3 percent), its flexibility and focus on outcomes can have an outsized impact on the medical research enterprise. Free of the pressures of publication and career advancement in academia and the bottom-line imperatives of the private sector, and driven by the desire to deliver results to the patients they represent, nonprofit foundations are ideally positioned to make relatively high-risk investments that could significantly move a field of research forward and increase the likelihood that other parties will also invest.

FasterCures has identified many ways in which foundations are already doing this; among them are:

  • Developing pre-clinical tools that benefit the field and aid in translation, such as biomarkers and animal models;
  • Bringing focus, management, and accountability to academic research;
  • Creating strategic partnerships with industry—in some cases directly investing in companies; and
  • Providing access to a patient community and resources through registries, biorepositories, and clinical trials networks.