The development of DBS was one part basic knowledge—an understanding of how Parkinson's works and how the brain responds to electrical stimulation—and one part sheer luck. Profits, on the other hand, had relatively little to do with it. According to Robert Gross, an Emory University neurosurgeon and expert in the field, Benabid had actually approached the companies that already made electrodes for use in treating chronic pain, suggesting they develop a device specifically for Parkinson's. But they declined initially, so Benabid had to use the existing devices and adapt them on his own. "The companies did not lead those advances," Gross says. "They followed them."
In this sense, DBS offers an important window into the way medical innovation actually happens. The great breakthroughs in the history of medicine, from the development of the polio vaccine to the identification of cancer-killing agents, did not take place because a for-profit company saw an opportunity and invested heavily in research. They happened because of scientists toiling in academic settings. "The nice thing about people like me in universities is that the great majority are not motivated by profit," says Cynthia Kenyon, a renowned cancer researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. "If we were, we wouldn't be here." And, while the United States may be the world leader in this sort of research, that's probably not—as critics of universal coverage frequently claim—because of our private insurance system. If anything, it's because of the federal government.
The single biggest source of medical research funding, not just in the United States but in the entire world, is the National Institutes of Health (NIH): Last year, it spent more than $28 billion on research, accounting for about one-third of the total dollars spent on medical research and development in this country (and half the money spent at universities). The majority of that money pays for the kind of basic research that might someday unlock cures for killer diseases like Alzheimer's, aids, and cancer. No other country has an institution that matches the NIH in scale. And that is probably the primary explanation for why so many of the intellectual breakthroughs in medical science happen here.
No, that would be Congress. Highly unlikely that those minds are greater than ours.
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