Friday, 25 July 2008

The Good the Bad and the Ugly


25th July 2008

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

I mean to tackle them in reverse order leaving the best for last. The ugly, very ugly, is the fishermen’s tragedy on a well equipped Maltese fishing boat which disappeared without giving any alert. One crew member miraculously survived one week at sea without water, food and shelter whilst another is still missing with vanishing hopes after three lifeless bodies were recovered.

There are so many questions and so few answers about what actually happened and why such incident could not be avoided in the first place and why the rescue operation proved so unsuccessful. What is needed is a thorough independent enquiry to establish the facts and to bring out the truth and all the truth. Until this is done it is unfair to start pointing fingers at individuals or organisations especially when organisations like the Armed Forces have an enviable track record in conducting successful rescues in much worse climatic conditions than the ones prevailing when this tragedy occurred and evolved.

The bad is learning that part of the deal which brokered compromise for liberalisation of the hearse service, and the eventual disintegration of the public transport strike which had started off as a sympathy strike in support of the hearse service providers’ resistance to liberalisation, involved payment by government of e230,000 to existing licence holders purportedly to facilitate the restructuring of the sector in order to withstand liberalisation.

To impartial, and may be uninformed observers out here, it looks more like a bribe to break down the reason why the strike started in the first place. It sets dangerous precedents for the liberalisation of more important segments of the transport sector. Is the taxpayer going to be involved in expensive handouts to gain the benefits of liberalisation? Have these monopolistic providers not been having it good for long enough? Do we have to pay them to give us back our jam jar?

As I argued in last week’s contribution, I very much doubt if liberalisation of the hearse service will work to benefit the consumer even if the number of providers were to double following liberalisation. Given the inelasticity of demand for the service, additional service providers will inevitably mean a sharp increase in under-utilisation of the invested capital which ultimately will be billed to the consumer as financial necessity will drive the operators into formal or informal cartel.

When liberalising a service which is so rigidly inelastic, the process has to be accompanied with price regulation in order to deter excessive and unproductive investment which ultimately will benefit no one, least of all the consumer.

The good, indeed excellent, is the news about another ‘de Bono’ who has made us proud to be Maltese by making a name for himself in the medical field of cancer research. Following the international fame claimed by Professor Edward de Bono of lateral thinking fame, yet another namesake, as far as known unrelated, secured international headlines about a cure still under research which in the initial clinical trials has given very promising results for the treatment of prostate cancer.

When there is a medical breakthrough in some research development it is best to judge its materiality by its effects on the financial markets. Ultimately research is a very expensive process and somebody somewhere would be paying for it hoping to reap financial returns in case of success, even to make up for many other research dollars spent on other projects which lead to nowhere.

The news that Dr Johann de Bono, a Maltese doctor reportedly assisted by another Maltese doctor Gerhardt Attard, headed a research team at Royal Marsden Hospital in London who are developing a new drug which is giving very consistent positive results for the treatment of prostate cancer, should make us all proud.

The best judge of the importance of this development is to consider the effects on the financial fortunes of those who would make financial gains if this research is concluded successfully leading to the licensing of the drug for general application. I quote a financial report I lifted on 22 July from Dow Jones Newswires


Shares in UK life sciences firm BTG PLC rose on Tuesday amid widespread publicity for experimental prostate cancer drug abiraterone, a BTG product licensed to Cougar Biotechnology of the US and hailed as a major advance in treating the disease by British researchers.

The results were described by charity cancer research UK’s cancer expert Professor Malcolm Mason as ‘extremely exciting’ although he said larger trials were needed.

Shares in BTG rose seven per cent whereas they gained 47 per cent in the last 12 months.

BTG licensed abiraterone from the Institute of Cancer research many years ago and subsequently it licensed it to Los Angeles based Cougar Biotechnology. Since then Cougar paid the institute two and a half years trials and pushed the drug through development and began pivotal phase III trials since April in more than 1000 patients. The trials will test the drug in metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer in patients for whom chemotherapy has failed – one of the most aggressive and deadly part of the disease.

It’s an area of major unmet medical need, said BTG director of investor relations Andy Burrows. Analysts estimate that if successful, sales of abiraterone could reach sales between $500 million and $1 billion a year.


I assure you they don’t come much better than this even from the big spenders in medical research of pharma and biotech companies.

For doubters like me about the wisdom of financing education of specialists who seek their fortunes overseas this comes as a timely reminder that it would be a sin against humanity if we were to compress the abilities of our professionals to the limitations of our structures which can hardly be developed to handle such mega research projects.

What we should aspire for from such positive developments is to establish the credentials of our basic tertiary education in order to entice international biotech companies to set up research laboratories in our midst to tap into the high calibre of medical cadre our university produces. Hopefully the pharma generic manufacturers amongst can upgrade their skills for research of own products as the big generic TEVA is doing in Israel.

In the meantime those human resources that seek fortunes elsewhere are not necessarily a brain drain. They eventually return with more experience and knowledge we can ever give them here.

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