The Gist of Science Reporter: June 2016

The Gist of Science Reporter: June 2016

Provisioning Affordable Drugs

Recently, the government revised the national list of essential medicines (NILEM) to add 106 more drugs increasing the total number of essential medicines, prices of which are capped by the government, from 348 to 384. This was done to bring down prices of medicines for critical disease like cancer, HIV and diabetes.

Medicines that are “aligned with the current treatment guidelines” and those used for treatment of disease that are “public health problem” were added to the new list by a core committee formed by the health ministry under the chairmanship of former Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research Dr. V.M. Katoh. This move is expected to make my important drugs of fordable for patients.

As per the WHO, Essential Medicines are those that satisfy priority health care needs of the population. The list is made with consideration to disease prevalence, efficacy, safety and comparative cost-effectiveness of the medicines. This is especially important for a resource limited country like India.

These days, drug companies worldwide are notorious for considerably jacking up the cost of medication, especially for disease like cancer and HIV. This happened last year when Martin Skhreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought the rights to a drug used in the treatment of HIV and increased the price by 5,000 percent! He had tried a similar tactic in another company when he increased the price of a drug that treats a rare kidney disease by 2,000 percent.

Now, contrast this with the efforts of Yusuf Hamied, now 77, and Chairman of Cipla Pharmaceuticals, who took advantage of a loophole in the Indian potent law of 1970 to copy a three-drug anti-retroviral combination for the treatment of AIDS and sold it dirt cheap to the poor in 2001. Although he was called a “pirate” by the MNCs, today more than eight million in Africa, where AIDS is endemic, are treated with the Cipla drug. Cipla also sells a stomach cancer drug in India for Rs. 6500 for 30 tablets against Rs. 2.8 lakh charged by multinational competitors.

A 2013 documentary, Fire in the Blood, tell the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries of Africa cousing more than then million unnecessary deaths. The film quotes Hamied as saing, “AZT, the first antiretroviral drug invented in 1963, has been covered under monopoly for 54 years. Is that what patenting is all about?”

Provision of expensive drugs targeting critical disease at affordable prices should definitely be the concern of the government, which should intervene when the market mechanism fails in checking prices.

Solar Family Could soon Have Its Ninth Planet

In a recent issue of the Astronomical Journal (January 2016), Konstantin Batygin and Milk Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, USA have reported that a heavenly body as big as Neptune, of course not yet visually confirmed, is orbiting the Sun, taking between 10,000 to 20,000 earth years to compete a full orbit. Nicknamed as Planet Nine by the researchers, it has a mass about 10 times that of the Earth and orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun on an average than does Neptune – that is, at a distance of about 2.8 billion miles.

Neptune was discovered in the mid-19th century. Since then, for more than 150 years, astronomers have been searching for planets beyond it. Neptune makes a peculiar movement in its orbit. From this, astronomers expected that there had to be a body heavy enough to cause such skewed movements. And soon they found Pluto in the Kuiper belt. But later Pluto was found to be too small to cause this skewed movement of Neptune and the search for bigger objects, which could be better contenders, continued.

The Batygin and Brown due could infer Planet Nine’s presence from the way six Kuiper objects orbit. According to them, there is only 0.007% chance that the clustering could be a coincidence. Instead, they say, a planet with the mass of 10 Earths has forced the six objects into their strange elliptical orbits, titled out of the plane of the solar system. He orbit of the inferred plant is similarly titled as well as stretched to distances that can explode the previous conception of the solar system, as its closest approach to the Sun is even times farther than Neptune, which is about 200 astronomical units (1 Astronomical Unit = 150 million kilometers, which is the distance between the Earth and the Sun).

Planet Nine must be icy and cold, considering its distance from the Sun. if we ever send a spacecraft like the New Horizon that flew past Pluto last year, during the planet’s closest approach to the Sun, it is likely to take at least 63 years to reach there. On the other hand, it could take around 300 years at the farthest approach and could take a few generations to come that close. However, with its visual confirmation, the solar family could be back once again with the nine planets!

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