An ecosystem of biomedical innovation

America's status as the research lab for the world is no longer secure.

According to a new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, Asian investments in biomedical research and development have increased 51 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. R&D expenditures have fallen 9 percent. That's a $12-billion decline.

Those numbers should serve as a wake-up call to America's leaders in both the public and private sectors. The federal government, academia, and private research-driven firms are equally important parts of our nation's innovation ecosystem. The more effectively they work together, the faster the fruits of their research can improve people's lives and reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

Successful collaboration among all three entities delivers not just cures for patients -- but substantial benefits for the economy, too.

The historical impact of biomedical research is striking. Consider cancer.

Pharmaceutical breakthroughs have contributed to a 30-percent drop in American cancer deaths over the last two decades. The number of cancer survivors has more than doubled -- from 6 million to 15 million. Since 1990, cancer patients have enjoyed 50 million additional years of life and generated $4.7 trillion in additional economic activity because of innovative medicines.

Just a generation ago, an AIDS diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence. Innovative treatments have since dropped the disease's death rate by 90 percent. Today, AIDS is a manageable condition, with the standard drug cocktail costing just a couple hundred dollars a year.

Newly approved medicines are a big reason why deaths from heart attacks and heart failure decreased 45 percent between 1999 and 2006.

But patients aren't the only ones who have benefited from the biomedical research ecosystem. So has the economy. Research-driven biopharmaceutical firms employ some 650,000 people directly -- and support four million jobs in other sectors indirectly.

All that economic activity generates tax revenue. In 2010, the government collected $3.7 billion on the activity related to the Human Genome Project. With just that year's tax take, the government recouped 97 percent of its 13-year investment in the Project.

But there are still many more problems for biomedical research to solve. Over the next 20 years, the number of new cancer cases is projected to increase by more than 50 percent, according to the World Health Organization. The incidence of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia in the United States will double by 2050.

Curing diseases like these will require substantial investments of time and money. Indeed, developing the average pharmaceutical drug takes over a decade and costs more than a billion dollars.

The risk of failure is high. Roughly 800 companies are currently working on new cancer treatments. Only about two or three are likely to produce a tangible new drug within the next two decades.

But the payoff generated by a successful therapy is astronomical. Just a 1-percent reduction in U.S. cancer-related deaths would deliver $500 billion in value to society.

Delaying the onset of Alzheimer's by just five years could reduce healthcare expenditures by $100 billion a year over the next 20 years.

The biomedical research ecosystem is closer than ever to achieving those goals. Globally, the research-based pharmaceutical industry spends $135 billion every year on research and development. Scientists are investigating nearly 1,000 compounds that could transform life-threatening cancers into chronic, manageable conditions within the next 10 to 15 years. Another 100 compounds are showing promise as potential therapies for Alzheimer's.

But converting those compounds into effective, approved therapies -- and keeping the research pipeline flowing with promising new cures -- requires more than science. Government, academia, and private firms must collaborate to ensure the health of our nation's ecosystem of innovation -- and to secure the medical and fiscal rewards it offers.

For the sake of patients -- and the broader economy -- America's leaders must help make that happen.

Hugin is chairman and CEO of Celgene Corporation and chairman of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.