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Dr. Cameron to Asbestos Defendants: Do the Right Thing, Fund Research, Help Us Clean up Your Mess

Sometimes you just gotta throw it out there, even though the cards are totally stacked against you.

Asbestos litigation has raged on for about 50 years. The asbestos companies have spent billions to defend and settle lawsuits. Hundreds of millions have been spent on concocting junk science to prove that asbestos is as benign as mother’s milk. But nary a penny has been invested in finding a cure.

On the medical front, nobody can say with a straight face that in the last 30 years there have been any significant advances in extending the life of mesothelioma patients. Yes, we can talk all day about multi-modal therapies, whether EPP is rational or not,or whether there’s any proven benefit of pursuing chemotherapy versus doing nothing at all.

We’re the richest nation on Earth. Some may argue that when it comes to matters of science, engineering, medicine and even justice we’re the smartest nation on Earth.

But the fact remains that when it comes to extending the survival of mesothelioma patients, we’re barely out of the Dark Ages. It’s not for a lack of money – the asbestos industry, the government, the drug companies, and the insurance companies over the years have had access to trillions of dollars.

And it’s not for the lack of plausible ideas despite the lack of actual public and private funding of research to treat meso patients, there have always been reasonable theories to convert meso from an always fatal cancer to a treatable chronic disease.

What’s lacking? Simple. There’s been a lack of will. A failure to take ownership of the problem, a denial of the problem, and a refusal to truly marshal the resources to solve it.

It was against this historical backdrop of pessimism, nihilism, and willful indifference, in a place where reasonable men and women eagerly sojourn to test their luck against impossible odds, that a little bit of history was made.

The Defense Research Institute, the self proclaimed “voice of the corporate defense bar,” to its credit, invited a doctor who treats meso patients to come talk to the nation’s top defense lawyers about ways to extend the survival of meso patients.

The doctor? Dr. Robert Cameron, a thoracic surgeon renown for putting the interests of his patients above any other financial or academic or ego driven agenda. If you’ve read any of this website you know that when it comes to making choices about treatment options we regard Dr. Cameron as the cool calm voice of reason in a stormy sea of hype, bad science and balderdash.

To that esteemed audience, an audience to which it can reasonably be asked – why would you care about extending the life of patients who are seeking big damages against your corporatate clients? -- Dr. Cameron let it all hang out. Nothing slick. Nothing pre-packaged. Nothing designed to make you feel good.

His message was simple: we haven’t advanced much on the medical front, but we do have promising ideas to tame this tumor. The government has never funded research proportionate to its incidence, impact or responsibility, and corporate America has even done less. Dr. Cameron was excited – I repeat, he said he was “excited” about several potential therapies but at the same time ‘frustrated’ that despite their promise he’s never been able to put them to work on account there’s been no money to fund them.

And these promising research projects don't carry Hoover Dam sized price tags. Dr. Cameron said that research and trials for the IL-4 toxin, cryotherapy (which he’s already using successfully to freeze out tumors that recur post surgery) and stromal cell manipulation could be underwritten for about $2-3 million each, a drop in the bucket when you consider the size of the NCI cancer budget ($5 billion a year) and the wealth of the corporate defendants (hundreds of billions).

Obviously Dr. Cameron was pitching to a tough crowd. The asbestos defendants have paid out billions in settlements. About 40 companies have filed chapter 11. The only asbestos company to ever fund medical research, Owens Corning, filed Chapter 11. Another, WR Grace, pledged to fund research but alas also sought bankruptcy protection. Dr.Cameron could hardly point to any empirical evidence that funding research to clean up the asbestos mess was a sure fire way to drive up a company’s stock price.

So why would an asbestos defendant want to contribute to medical research? Dr. Cameron offered an analogy. In medicine, mistakes are common place. Sponges get left in the human body. An organ gets nicked. A vessel gets cut. Accidents happen. But doctors don't always get sued when they make a mistake. Instead, the doctors who fess up immediately, who speak directly to their patients about what went wrong and why, and own up to their error, usually don’t get sued, because their patients still trust them. It’s the doctors who try to cover up their mistake that get called onto the carpet. It’s usually not the negligence, it's the attempt to cover it up, that gets folks in trouble.

Dr. Cameron humbly admitted that he was not a testifying expert and he did not pretend to know if there were any ramifications regarding liability. But, he suggested, virtue is its own reward. Money invested in converting meso from a fatal to a treatable disease would not only engender public goodwill, but it could also perhaps limit damages, as successful patients could die from what all of us hope to die from – old age.

Did it work? Were the lions tamed? Will corporate America step up? When Dr. Cameron finished his earnest speech, going down in history as the first treating doctor to ever ask the asbestos defense (an audience he described as “the top 1% of America’s brain power”) for their help in coming up with funding strategies, the moderator thanked the good doctor for his passion but, on the question of will they or wont they, said: “Never gonna happen.”