An American Center for Cures?

05/08/2008 09:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This election campaign, there has been a lot of talk of change, and one area that has received its fair share of attention is health care reform. Unfortunately in my point of view, much of the reform rhetoric continues to be about how and whether we pay for health care - as opposed to how we do it.

Writing in Thursday's Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Harold Ford Jr. and Al From break that mold with some out-of-the-box thinking - which is always how real change starts. While giving a nod to the reform plans of their party's presidential candidates, the two leaders propose an "American Center for Cures" as a critical element in speeding the development of cures for human illness and injury.

Their well-taken point is that finding cures is in and of itself an equally valuable, people-focused kind of reform - because it can not only improve quality of life but save the costs that are burdening our system.

That's why this focus on driving therapeutic advances, and ultimately a cure to Parkinson's - not just passing on dollars to researchers - is the same approach we've been taking for the last seven years at The Michael J. Fox Foundation.

At the core of this approach is the lesson we have absorbed about the difference between basic and translational research. We've learned that basic research is hypothesis-driven and discovery-focused. Although the findings it yields are absolutely critical to making progress toward cures over the long haul, it is generally oriented toward answering interesting and elegant questions of science - not making a real difference in patients' lives.

We also discovered - when we looked at the landscape of other funders from NIH to private industry - a resource gap that has been aptly described as the "valley of death" for cures. NIH is designed to fund basic research. The biotech and pharmaceutical industry is inclined to fund late stage pre-clinical work and increasingly is even more focused on clinical trials. But surprisingly, no one is deliberately driving treatments through the development pipeline by closing the gap between basic and clinical research.

Translational research is entirely different. Rather than shed light on the basic molecules and processes of living organisms, translational research builds on discoveries already made - and focuses on funneling them through the critical stages of development that can turn them into new medicines or treatments for disease.

For this reason, our Foundation has relentlessly targeted our funds and our efforts to drive translational research for Parkinson's. We encourage early-stage researchers to focus on specific problems and challenges related to the disease. We get proactive about project management, help set priorities, and drive collaboration along the entire development pipeline from basic research to clinical trials.

That's what is so attractive to me about Messrs. Ford's and From's proposal - it takes the same patient-focused, disease-driven, collaborative approach and applies it to the federal government's healthcare efforts. It's an approach I see as complementary to that of NIH, which could continue to drive the basic research on which a separate, more translation-driven Center for Cures could build.

I would love to see the presidential candidates express their views on the concept of a Center for Cures and the potential for "progress-driven" reform of the health care system. After all, what good is it to tinker around the edges of the most expensive health care system in the world - or to fund the greatest discovery engine anywhere - if we're not converting all that investment into real improvements in human health?