Michael Milken, Privatizing Medical Research

Michael Milken, whose prosecution for violation of insider trading laws in the early 90s was condemned by many Objectivist commentators, is featured in a terrific cover article in this month’s Fortune magazine.
The article (available to subscribers of that magazine) begins:

The image on the oversized screen behind the podium was of a giant malignant tumor. The discussion was about prognostic indicators?doctorspeak for how much longer people with such tumors had to live. The prognosis wasn’t good, with life expectancy measured in months, not years. The presenter’s manner was cold, but it didn’t matter: This was no hospital bedside but a roomful of physicians, gathered for a seminar on prostate cancer at Houston’s prestigious M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In the third row sat a tall, slight, unimposing man. The top of his middle-aged head no longer had hair; his eyebrows were thin. His nametag read dr. robert hackel, and all he could think about was how enormous the tumor looked onscreen. A tumor just like his own.
When the speaker, Donald Coffey, an esteemed prostate cancer expert from Johns Hopkins, was finished, Hackel made his way to the front. For 25 minutes he grilled Coffey on his presentation, asking technical questions about the research and its therapeutic implications. At what should have been the end of a friendly exchange between colleagues, Hackel turned to Coffey and said, “I am Mike Milken. I want to be cured.”
Coffey knew the name. It was 1993, and Michael Milken, the once-highflying junk-bond wizard had, a few years earlier, been a familiar face in the newspapers because of his high-profile indictment on securities violations. Only two weeks before, in fact, Milken?now wearing a phony ID badge with his middle name and father-in-law’s surname?had been released from prison, having served 22 months. Coffey was surprised not just by who his questioner was, but by the fact that he wasn’t a doctor. His toupee gone and his toothy grin somewhat modulated, Milken seemed more like a veteran lab scientist than a desperate patient. He knew much about the biology of cancer.
It was only when Milken began to speak rapturously about turning prostate cancer research on its head and starting “a Manhattan Project for cancer” that the financier sounded a bit naive. A real physician would have known better, thought Coffey. “The truth was, at the time, there was so little research?or anything else?going on in the field [of prostate cancer], it was as if Milken was speaking in tongues,” he says. Still, the good doctor listened politely.
Eleven years later many others are listening too. That’s because Milken has, in fact, turned the cancer establishment upside down.

How did he do this? In a word: privatization. Together with other high-profile entrepreneurs such as Intel’s Andy Grove, Milken started a private foundation to aggressively fund innovative research to cure prostate cancer. (Not to “understand” or “promote awareness” of prostate cancer ? to cure it.)
At first, establishment researchers were wary of the funding requirements, which include sharing the results of their research with other researchers before it goes through the lengthy process of getting published in peer-reviewed journals. But prostate cancer research had been mired in bureaucratic red tape for many years, and the prospect of receiving $100,000 in funding within 90 days ? rather than the 2-3 years required for government-funded research ? eventually won the researchers over to the merits of private funding.
Today Milken’s institution has funded so many new treatments and drug therapies that, had it sought to retain ownership of such treatments, it would be the world’s third-largest biotechnology company. (I’m paraphrasing from memory, here; I read the full story this morning but don’t have it handy.)
The result? Deaths from prostate cancer are declining steeply, and Milken himself is in seemingly full remission.
See the full story in Fortune for additional information.