In January, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that it would stop all funding for research into neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In a media statement, a company representative said that the layoff of 300 scientists and the decision to discontinue its “neuroscience discovery and early development efforts” was the “result of a…comprehensive review.” Mikael Dolsten, head of research and development, added that the company “recognized our ongoing efforts were not going to deliver the impactful medical advances for patients that we had aspired to achieve.”

Up until that time, Pfizer was among a number of pharmaceutical companies that have been making large investments in research on neurodegenerative disease. These companies have been the beneficiaries of a venture capital fund known as the Dementia Discovery Fund, which was established in 2015. Last year, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates donated $50 million of his own personal wealth to the fund, and pledged an additional $50 million to start-up companies engaged in Alzheimer’s research.

The Alzheimer’s Association predicts that as many as 16 million Americans will be suffering from the disease by 2050.

Pfizer’s announcement raised serious concerns among patients and scientists. In an article published in Neurology Today, neurologists expressed fears that Pfizer’s withdrawal may indicate a wholesale exit by large pharmaceutical companies from research on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – and may discourage smaller companies from making investments in such research.

Admittedly, there have been numerous failures in the quest to find cures and effective treatments over the past few years. For example, work involving a drug known as bapineuzumab, which was in development in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson, was ended after Phase III trials failed to produce hoped-for results. Another drug being developed at Merck & Company, known as verubecestate, was recently discontinued after the data monitoring committee determined that the “drug was unlikely to show a positive risk/benefit ratio” if studies were to continue.

James Beck, chief scientific officer of the Parkinson’s Foundation, told reporter Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times in January that large pharmaceutical companies abandoning research into neurodegenerative disease was “really alarming…having Pfizer exit does not augur well for what other companies are likely to do.”

In that same report, Hiltzik noted that Pfizer was a major beneficiary of the recent tax reform bill. He recalled the last time a GOP administration had given American corporations such a lavish gift occurred when they were granted a “tax holiday” on repatriated foreign earnings. At that time, Corporate America promised that the resultant tax savings would be re-invested in operations and more workers would be hired. Pfizer was the prime beneficiary of that amnesty, saving a total of $35.5 billion. However, instead of hiring and investing, the third-largest pharmaceutical company in America repurchased $27 billion in stock and fired nearly 12,000 employees.

Is history repeating itself?

Research and development into cures for serious diseases is a costly proposition, to be sure – but as long as the priority is on profits and not on making the world a better place, progress will slow to a crawl as the burden of discovery is placed on smaller companies, public institutions, and philanthropic foundations. It is yet one more example of the fundamental failure of the capitalist system when it comes to serving the public good.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.