Drug for All Reasons

IN HIS FAMOUS novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
portrayed a failed 25th-century utopia blissed out on a single
substance known as soma. That?s nothing compared to a much nearer
future envisioned by drug industry critic Pat Mooney. Alarmed by
the growing effort to market pills for ?making well people better,?
Mooney says we?re about to be tempted by a wide array of ?human
performance drugs? that will do everything from boosting memory to
letting people eat like pigs without getting fat.

While these new kinds of ?Viagra for the brain? might sound like
fun, Mooney warns that the real effects may not be so benign,
including their use for mind control. Meanwhile, drug manufacturers
will be distracted from developing cures for many real diseases
that continue to torment the poor.

Writing in the environmental magazine World
Watch
(July/Aug. 2002), Mooney, a longtime critic of
biotechnology, notes that focusing on the sick is not profitable,
at least from Big Pharma?s point of view. Most folks get well or
die, neither of which is good for business. There?s far more money
in serving customers who are basically well.

According to Mooney, of the 1,223 drugs brought to market
between 1975 and 1996, only 13 targeted the deadly tropical
diseases that afflict millions. He says it?s even less likely now
that the industry will focus on suffering in the developing world
because large Western pharmaceutical corporations control much of
the world?s drug market.

Mooney heads the Canadian-based ETC Group, a nonprofit
organization that monitors corporations? plans to patent life forms
and genes. He notes that biotechnology research is now merging with
the quest to develop performance-enhancing drugs, or what Mooney
calls ?HyPEs.? For instance, Northwestern University has patented a
gene that is thought to regulate circadian rhythm?the 24-hour
pattern that determines many bodily processes. The hope is that the
patent will allow researchers to control any future use of the gene
in designing drugs for jet lag, drowsiness, and other
conditions.

Meanwhile, drugs for specific disorders are finding wider
markets. Provigil, a treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder, is
attracting attention as a possible alertness aid for healthy
people. Beta blockers, once used mainly to treat heart disorders,
have become a drug of choice among nervous musicians and public
speakers because of the drugs? ability to alleviate stage fright.
(Mooney cites a study that found that 27 percent of symphony
orchestra musicians use them.)

Mooney sees a more serious potential for abuse in ?cognitive
enhancers,? also known as ?nootropics? or ?smart drugs.? The market
for them is already vast, he says, earning $94.5 million for the
treatment of Alzheimer?s disease in 1995 alone. A new generation of
such drugs could reap larger profits if they were used to boost
memory or block trauma recollection in otherwise healthy
people.

Mooney envisions a brave new world in which teachers, employers,
or governments will use such substances to increase performance?or
even control dissent. ?Mood-altering drugs that dispel discontent
might be pressed upon workers,? he says. And why stop there? Mooney
foresees the day we?ll not only make our own soldiers brighter and
more alert, but also dose our enemies with anti-smart drugs that
will make them stupid and sluggish.

It wasn?t supposed to be this way, contends Mooney, who won the
Right Livelihood Award (the ?alternative Nobel Prize?) in 1985 for
his efforts to save the world?s genetic plant heritage. The hope a
decade ago was that drug companies would collaborate with plant
breeders to develop nutriceuticals?technologically enhanced food?to
help feed the world?s 820 million malnourished poor. Instead, he
says, the goal today is a drug that will let the world?s affluent
eat all they want and never gain weight.

To reverse this trend, Mooney proposes wresting control of the
research agenda from Big Pharma and returning it to the service of
public health. ?Until we dispel the myth that the biotech and
pharmaceutical industries are working on our behalf,? he maintains,
?the prognosis is poor.?

Miriam Karmel is a Minneapolis writer.

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