UCSF graduate student among first-place winners of STEP White Paper Competition 2008

UCSF biophysics PhD student Gabriel Rocklin and Jacob Heller, Stanford University law student, were first-place winners, with a second team, of the Science, Technology and Engineering Policy (STEP) White Paper Competition 2008 sponsored by the STEP Policy Group at the University of California, Berkeley (University of California, Berkeley).

The contest is designed to explore the interplay between technology and pressing policy needs. It was initiated in 2006 and is open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at UCSF, Stanford University, and University of California, Berkeley. The competition reinforces the underlying aim of the STEP Policy Group to provide scientists with training to communicate effectively with a policy audience and understand the decision-making process in political institutions.

The Rocklin/Heller paper, entitled Promoting Pharmaceutical Research under National Health Care Reform, proposes the establishment of a new federal fund to support the development of pharmaceutical products based upon what the authors define as the true measure of the products' value—their contribution to the quality and length of human life.

"We see a chance to marry technical innovation in drug development with national policy. R and D spending for drug development is way up, yet the number of new drug approvals has fallen sharply from 1990's highs. It's likely that our country will restructure health care and restrict reimbursements for prescription drugs, which could provide a killing blow to a pharmaceutical industry on the brink," explains Rocklin.

"We argue in our paper that health care reforms will create a window of opportunity in which we can apply the cost savings from lower reimbursements to nurture a more productive pharmaceutical industry."

To foster continued pharmaceutical company research and drug development in areas where it can best impact public health, the duo advocates the creation of a National Pharmaceutical Innovation Fund. The fund would allocate money according to the potential health benefits of a new drug. "By tying fund distribution to what we call Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs), pharmaceutical companies would have the incentive to develop the best cures for the worst diseases that affect the most people while making sure their products are as affordable and accessible as possible," explains Rocklin.

To obtain these government funds, companies could still patent their products, but they would be require to freely license their patents to US firms, thus enabling the timely manufacture of generics. The more generics, the better the QALYs, and thus the higher the return to the patent holder. "Our argument is that the market exclusivity that results from unlicensed patents is not a great way to promote innovation or access to therapies by the people who need them," Rocklin says.

Rocklin and Heller, along with the other competition finalists, presented their policy paper in a public forum on the University of California, Berkeley campus on August 14, 2008, where three judges—a public relations manager for a biotechnology firm, a physics professor, and an arms control policy researcher—presided over the contest.

Now in his second year of graduate studies at UCSF, Rocklin spends a lot of his time in the laboratories of School of Pharmacy faculty members Ken Dill, PhD, and Brian Shoichet, PhD, where he probes molecular structures to envision the shapes of future drugs and drug targets.

In developing the white paper, Dill and Shoichet provided insight into the world of pharmaceutical research, explains Rocklin, while a 2005 proposal by Aidan Hollis, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, provided the concept for a National Pharmaceutical Innovation Fund.

"Gabe and Jacob present an intriguing idea for boosting innovative research," says Dill, who has worked for more than a decade to coordinate lobbying efforts aimed at persuading federal lawmakers and administrators to free up funds for high-risk, high-payoff university research in many areas of basic science.

"I believe that advocacy is an important role for senior scientists to take on after they have established their research careers," Dill says. "But it's also great to see younger scientists taking an interest. I've met young congressional staffers who are influential in Washington science policy in part because of their strong scientific skills as graduate students and postdocs."

The effort that the team put into the contest was well worth it, Rocklin says. "We learned a lot about different ways people in science might influence policy. Our portion of the $3,000 prize money, that we share with the other first-place team, was just icing on the cake."


School of Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program, QBC, Biophysics

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.