The lady in the blue sweater . . .
Having just submitted my piece for Word magazine defending Question Time against facile charges of dumbing-down, it was heartening to see another lively and intelligent debate last night. I also got the chance to shake my fist at the screen, which is a useful defence against developing cancer. In decending order of party-affiliated vacuity, we had Margaret Hodge MP, the condescending, eye-narrowing, head-shaking work and pensions minister; David Willetts MP, shadow education secretary and a great favourite of the programme, on account of his unusual number of brains; Jenny Tonge, sacked Liberal front-bencher (something to do with suicide bombers) now outspoken Liberal peer with newly-dyed hair, which looks much better; Simon Jenkins, floor-crossing Guardian columnist whose words I find regularly compelling and fair (not bad for a former editor of the Standard and the Times); and Kwame Kwei-Armah, who I would describe as “most famous for appearing on Casualty” if I was trying to make a snooty point, but since I’m not, the playwright and actor.
From Gateshead, the audience were as tuned in, passionate and vocal as we’ve come to expect, not least a teacher from Sunderland who attempted to cut through the party bullshit about Blair’s education bill (which squeezed through its second reading thanks to life-saving support from the Tories – how proud he will be of his legacy). I was particularly interested in the panel’s reaction to this Parexel story: six human guinea pigs fighting for their lives after a drugs trial that went wrong. My first reaction, and you might not like it, is, hey, they volunteered to take part in this trial. It’s a risk you sign on the dotted line for. Drugs-testing is a well-known method for topping up grants or paying for a skiing holiday (you can get up to two thousand pounds a trial – two thousand, three hundred and thirty in this case – and you only have to leave three months before you can do another one); those that sign up do so with plenty of small print to protect the drugs company and, I daresay, in a spirit of “what could possibly go wrong? There are people with white coats here”. I respect the volunteers’ right to do this, and I wish no harm upon any of them. But when it goes wrong, as it has done with this trial for TGN1412, an anti-inflammatory, it’s difficult to get worked up. The QT panel indulged in a display of kneejerk sympathy which, for me, skirted the issue, which is twofold.
1) Why are we testing drugs on animals (in this case rats and monkeys), if the drug can still have catastrophic effects on humans? Doesn’t this blow the pro-animal-testing argument out of the water? It’s a waste of time. I don’t recall a media feeding frenzy the last time six monkeys swelled up and had to fight for their life. Is the life of a mouse so cheap? How many mice must die to make the papers? (It’s ironic, because if a pet dies, we go nuts, and if a pet dies in a horrible way, it will make the papers, but these creatures are being bred as convenient drug-dustbins just so that we can relieve joint pain. And worse ailments, I know, but there’s still something wrong, to me, about the set-up.)
2) The bit that nobody seems to be picking up on: when are we going to stop treating genetic modification as A Good Thing? This drug is a “humanised monoclonal antibody”, a genetically engineered protein that is part mouse but mostly human. These drugs usually aim to suppress an immune system reaction – but this does the opposite. Either way, it’s part-mouse! Who wants the genetic makeup of a mouse sticking in them? This is unholy.
I don’t wish to get into a crowing debate about the pharmaceutical companies, but, like all other companies, especially ones that make billions of dollars a year, they need to make more money. And to make more money, they must invent new drugs in the hope that one will be a “blockbuster”. and to get these on the market, they must test them. Fair enough. But let’s not be surprised when one puts six fit young men in hospital, or when one, like the painkiler Vioxx, turns out after about four years on the market to cause heart attacks and strokes.
We are all guinea pigs, not just those poor blokes on organ support machines.
Check out Parexel’s website (I’m not doing a link, you’ll find it) – they’re an American company who are very keen to promote drugs trials in Latin America, where there’s a large untapped market described in the blurb as “naive subjects”. I’m sure this is a medically-recognised term, but the big buzz-phrase at Paraxel of “shortening time-to-market”. Good idea. Let’s speed things up.
Be careful out there.