Nobel laureate Richard Roberts says capitalism and health care do not mix

Asia should steer clear of the US funding model for health care, Nobel Prize winning scientist Richard Roberts tells Richard Lord

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 9:37am

Richard Roberts probably doesn't fit your stereotypical image of the ivory tower academic scientist.

The biochemist and molecular biologist's credentials are as good as they come: he won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work into the mechanism of gene splicing that made much of the modern biotechnology and gene-science industry possible.

If you're just using health care to make money, you will treat the wrong diseases
richard Roberts 

But what has always distinguished Roberts' career is his engagement with real-world issues; his insistence that science be applied in people's lives in ways that are helpful to them - and fun.

With that in mind, he spends as much time as he can spare spreading his wisdom to the next generation of science stars, at events such as the recent Global Young Scientists Summit in Singapore, where he delivered lectures and took part in a series of workshops.

"I get a lot of opportunities to do things like this, and I enjoy it very much, but often there just isn't enough time," says the 70-year-old.

"It's often the case at an event like this that you're trying to explain something and then all of a sudden one of the kids asks you a question and you don't know the answer, and you suddenly realise that you're not as smart as you thought."

Science, he thinks, has to be fun - and that involves the opportunity for limitless experimentation, even if it might seem ridiculous or dangerous. Roberts himself got into science by making fireworks at home.

"Now the authorities have decided in their wisdom that things like that are too dangerous for kids to do, and I think that's really stupid," he says. "What turns people on to science is actually really doing stuff themselves."

After graduating from the University of Sheffield, his interest in molecular biology took him to Harvard where, in 1972, he attended the seminar that would change his life. There, 1978 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Nathans described restriction enzymes, chemicals that allow DNA to be chopped up into bits. "It struck me that these would be key to sequencing DNA. I went to look for more of them - and they're everywhere," says Roberts.

At one point, his lab was responsible for three-quarters of the restriction enzymes being discovered in the world. "I was very lucky to discover so many of them," he says modestly.

His eureka moment came in 1977 when he was looking into how RNA - which along with DNA controls and expresses genes - is made. He had a hunch that RNA was made differently from the way other people thought.

That led to the discovery, in 1977, of introns, sequences of acids within genes that play a vital role in gene splicing. After a couple of years of nominations, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. "By the time I finally did win it, I'd given up hope that I ever would," he says.

As a scientist whose work has had a critical impact on the health care industry, allowing all sorts of medical research that wouldn't otherwise have been possible, Roberts has been vocal in the past on the subject of health care funding and, in particular, the dangers of leaving medical research in the hands of pharmaceutical companies.

In an interview published in a Spanish newspaper in 2007, Roberts remarked that research funds go into the discovery of drugs that do not heal completely, but make disease chronic, and make you experience an improvement that disappears when you stop taking the drug.

"A lot of medicines are not there to cure diseases. That's fine - drugs that keep people alive who wouldn't otherwise be alive are useful," he says. "What I object to is the drug companies' advertising, which you see everywhere in the US, which claims that they are curing diseases when they're not."

Research spending is growing fast in Asia - up 51 per cent between 2007 and 2012, compared to a fall of 9 per cent in the US and 2 per cent in Europe over the same period, according to recent research published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The same study shows that research is largely funded privately in Asia - 69 per cent, compared to 59 per cent in the US and 65 per cent in Europe.

Roberts says that the funding model for health care in the US is fundamentally compromised and it's important that Asia goes down a different route, with proper public funding of research.

"The way health care is funded in the US is not sustainable. People are being kept alive who are probably better off dead. The cost of health care is too high, and you don't get much for it - it's twice as high in the US as elsewhere, and it's because of the middlemen.

"One always has to worry when capitalism has a role in health care. If you're just using health care to make money, you will treat the wrong diseases. Capitalism has its limits. There is a role for governments and this is one where they should be involved.

"And it's appalling that politicians won't talk about it. Obamacare [the US Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] was a modest effort to do something, but even that's been watered down."