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Biotech Patents

Researchers Work Around Hepatitis Drug Patent 298

Several readers let us know about a pair of British researchers who found a workaround to patents covering drugs used to treat hepatitis C. The developers intend to produce a drug cheap enough to supply to people in the poorest parts of the world. The scientists found another way to bind a sugar to interferon, producing a drug they say should be as long-lasting and effective as those sold (at $14,000 for a year's supply) by patent holders Hoffman-La Roche and Schering Plough. Clinical trials could begin by 2008. The article quotes developer Sunil Shaunak of Imperial College London: "We in academic medicine can either choose to use our ideas to make large sums of money for small numbers of people, or to look outwards to the global community and make affordable medicines."
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Researchers Work Around Hepatitis Drug Patent

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  • Thumbs up! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @03:30AM (#17441094)
    Before the arguments about the effectiveness of this drug compared to the patented one, the morality of patents on medicine and the soviet russia jokes break out; I'd like to show my respect for these people. It's great to see this effort!
  • by Heir Of The Mess ( 939658 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @03:43AM (#17441164)
    For example Australian company Biota [] created and patented Relenza for treating bird flu, then Roche modified their product slightly to produce and patent Tamiflu.
  • by Stephen Samuel ( 106962 ) <samuel@bc g r e> on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @04:06AM (#17441288) Homepage Journal
    'Cause, if they do, I'd like to donate $10 to their research fund.
  • Re:**Bullshit** (Score:2, Interesting)

    by joelt49 ( 637701 ) <`joelt49' `at' `'> on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @04:07AM (#17441298) Homepage
    Sorry for the flamebait, but you're a moron. Here's why:

    1. The software development industry is very different from the drug industry. In particular, look at the costs of bringing something to market. It costs far more to bring a patented drug to market than it does a computer program. So you have higher costs you have to recover.
    2. Where does a lot of support for Linux come from? Companies like Red Hat and IBM, who are also competing and want to turn a profit. However, IBM and Red Hat can support different niches of the market without competing directly. This is harder to do with prescription drugs.
    3. In effect, cooperation and competition are competing models. Cooperation appears to be working well in software (I'm currently using Firefox on Gentoo), but that model has failed to gain serious traction in the drug industry. If cooperation like this is so great, why hasn't it flourished more? Why aren't we seeing more stories of people cooperating like this working on new drugs?

    Sigh, why do I try to promote standard, mainstream economics on /.?
  • Re:fallacious (Score:2, Interesting)

    by poopdeville ( 841677 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @04:13AM (#17441330)
    1. Drug companies have to turn a profit; otherwise, they don't produce the drugs.

    False. Research can be done under the auspices of a non-profit organization or university, as was done in this case.

    2. The more money a drug company makes off a medicine, the more valuable it is. A drug company's profits are a function of how much people value that drug -- the drug's social utility (this is basic economics).

    Clearly false. An effective, cheap vaccine against HIV, say, would be far more valuable than all the Viagra in the world.

    3. Once the drug companies patents run out, anyone can produce generic medicines cheaply.

    Yes, after denying the public access for 20 years. Ever heard of the Hippocratic Oath? See: 41208 []

    Funnily enough, you misinterpreted Professor Shaunak's quote. Here's some context from the BBC article:

    Currently, many of the scientific advances which eventually lead to effective treatments are developed within universities or by researchers working for charities, but that 'intellectual property' is then sold to pharmaceutical companies who bring the product to market.

    Professor Shaunak called for a different approach - for academic institutions to go into competition for cures with 'big pharma'.

    "We in academic medicine can either choose to use our ideas to make large sums of money for small numbers of people, or to look outwards to the global community and make affordable medicines."
  • Re:fallacious (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @04:39AM (#17441482)
    I work in the financial side of the health care industry (auditing hospitals, basically). I'd like to comment on your peptic ulcer example.

    It is well understood that most (around 75%) of peptic ulcers are caused by an H. pylori infection. Unfortunately, the other 25% are caused by potentially serious conditions. My boss, an M.D./Ph.D. told me and my colleagues that he wouldn't hesitate to prescribe a round of antibiotics to his family members and trusted associates for an ulcer in lieu of invasive tests. But a doctor's liability is too high for that to become common in a hospital setting, leading to expensive invasive procedures.

    Sorry for the tangent -- your comments reminded me of what my boss said. I don't intend to dispute your point regarding ulcer treatments. It is a practice our company intends to stamp out.
  • NICE!!!!!! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rooked_One ( 591287 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @04:42AM (#17441502) Journal
    I've undergone pegaylated interferon treatment twice now... didn't work for me, however did for my brother, and you have to have AWESOME insurance to cover this stuff. I doubt the side effects (which are 11 months of hell) are any different, but if it was cheaper, and for the people who relapse when the drug does keep the virus in check, but comes back, this would be great. After the treatment I felt so good for the couple of months that the viral levels were low... I've been hoping for a prophylactic kind of treatment for a long time... I really hope the pharmco's aren't assholes about something like this.
  • Re:Thumbs up! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by arivanov ( 12034 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @05:06AM (#17441622) Homepage
    Chemical compounds as such are not patentable. Their use for a specific purpose, synthesis and administration are. That is usually enough to protect a drug to a point where you have effectively patented the compound.
  • by hclyff ( 925743 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @05:20AM (#17441684)
    And where did this inventor get their education from
    Absolutely. All discoveries are done based on previous published research. If every pharmaceutical company kept their research to themselves, there wouldn't be much progress really. Not to mention that in academia, if you don't publish you don't exist. That's where patents sort of come in, to allow and encourage publishing of results done by private companies.

    Think of it this way: if those companies weren't guaranteed profit in case of discovering something useful, they wouldn't do the research in the first place.
  • Re:fallacious (Score:4, Interesting)

    by janek78 ( 861508 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @07:03AM (#17442148) Homepage
    Could you clarify that about treatment for stomach ulcers? I thought that omeprazole was already off patent (we have 11 brands available here in the Czech Republic). The cost of treatment for omeprazole is about $0.33 to $1 a day here. It is usually given for 6 weeks, so the total cost is something up to $40. And it actually compeletely cures the ulcers! Wow! Amazing.

    I suggest you go back freshen up a little before you come preaching here.

    And YES, I am a fucking doctor and no I don't have any shares of pharma companies. :)
  • See? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Digital Vomit ( 891734 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @07:06AM (#17442156) Homepage Journal
    See? Patents do encourage innovation! forcing others to work around existing patents. :-P
  • by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @07:27AM (#17442246)
    Are you sure it was really $1000? That's $365,000 a year. The most expensive currently marketed drug is Cerezyme at $175,000 a year, and that's for some weird genetic disorder that only, like 5000 people on the planet suffer from.
  • by The Rizz ( 1319 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @08:07AM (#17442416)
    If it wasn't for patents, what would drive people to look for alternate treatments ?

    I dunno ... maybe the idea that there are possibly better treatments that could be discovered? Ones with less side effects, that work faster, that work for people that the known treatments don't, or perhaps even ones that have a lower production/materials cost?
  • Re:fallacious (Score:3, Interesting)

    by balloonhead ( 589759 ) <> on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @08:38AM (#17442666)
    You're really a fucking pharmacist? You don't seem to actually have much concept of the way things work.

    Stomach ulcers have a cure. In some people. Those with helicobacter. And it's not just an antibiotic - it's three drugs (amoxicillin, metronidazole, and a PPI of your choice - let's say omeprazole. You mention a mineral (presume you mean bismuth?). There are a few different treatment regimens available, some with differences. I believe you can even get them as one pill with all the drugs in. Usually a week's course.

    However, that doesn't address:
    1. people who don't respond to this first treatment, or the second line treatment, or anything.
    2. people who have non-infectious ulcers
    3. people who have 'acid indigestion' - a myriad of diagnoses from oesophagitis, reflux, candida, and gastritis to functional dyspepsia (also called 'we don't have a diagnosis, but we've ruled all the treatable ones out, so w'll just treat your symptoms').

    And the drug companies love it because they can market 'new' drugs from old, cheap generics (i.e. package them as one treatment, put it in a fancy box - they're not going to make much money off those same drugs otherwise).

    Now, dexamphetamine is still a very popular drug for ADHD. I won't even go into how marketing directly to the parents causes overprescription as they demand that as it had the best glossy ad in their lifestyle magazine. Or how the condition is totally overdiagnosed by a society that is forgetting how to look after its kids (try it a hundred years ago, with no TV to babysit them while they eat their preservative laden dinner, before 4 hours of playstation then bed at 2am).

    (PS to the indignant parents of ADHD kids - your little precious may or may not be 'real' ADHD. That's not my point. The sad fact is it's becoming a diagnosis of convenience for shit parents).

    Anyway - I digress. There are a number of other holes in your statements (some of which have already been addressed by another physician) but in future, try to at least have a bit of knowledge about what you are talking about. I certainly don't believe you are a pharmacist, unless you trained a long time ago and never kept current.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @09:26AM (#17443102)
    when those drugs go out of patent around 2011, their lucky streak will end and their numbers will go back to something resembling sanity.

    Actually, they'll just tack on another molecule, patent their new mixture, and tell doctors that this new drug is less likely to cause ulcers/heart attacks/penis rot/whatever than the generic stuff, and it'll sell like hotcakes.
  • Bill Gates (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @09:33AM (#17443164)
    This is why Bill Gates' largesse with respect to fighting disease should be taken with a grain of salt. Because the research he supports is protected by the IP regime, the actual cost of delivered drugs may be significantly higher than they otherwise might. It's very analogous to the way Microsoft values their software contributions to schools and other charitable causes. Instead of considering the actual cost of manufacturing and distribution, they include a giant markup to cover their "intellectual property". Software is worse, because you don't even get title to actual software, but only a license.

    Much of Bill's money is going toward research. That's great. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the cost of supporting the IP regime. There would be far more medicine available to assist the disadvantaged if there were actual competition in the marketplace.

    I don't consider Bill a hopeless case. He understands full well the burden IP protections place on the marketplace. Bill could transform himself from an unequivocal business titan to a truly transformative historical figure if he would use his clout to press for real change in patent and copyright law. By doing so, he could do far more to make the world a better place than by simply contribributing a few meager billions of dollars. Money is just money. Ideas last forever.

    "If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. ... The solution is patenting as much as we can. A future startup with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose. That price might be high. Established companies have an interest in excluding future competitors."

    --Bill Gates

  • by Thomas the Doubter ( 1016806 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @02:29PM (#17447522)
    This reasoning is very off base. First of all, Pfizer happens to have one of the highest profit margins in the industry, but that is not really relevant...
    Most of the folks here have little to no understanding of the cost of Research for the pharmaceutical industry. It does indeed take several millions of dollars to identify and produce a promising compound. You folks see to think the work is all done at this point, but in fact it is just beginning. There have been estimates that the Clinical Reseach, which is to say the testing and evaluation of varying doses and regimens across various ages and populations of people - hundreds and hundreds and even tens of thousands of people - can cost upward of 800 Million Dollars. And this is before a single dollar is made in profit! The up-front cost is huge, the risk tremendous, and the profits, if and when realized can be good. A significant fraction of that profit goes directly back into research and development, as well as compensation for the risk-takers. Let's put it another way - if the government (any government) had to finance the research carried out by the major pharmaceutical companies, most of it simply would not get done. The result would be fewer drugs and drugs on the market with less testing than we see now!
    Yes, it is true that patents, in effect subsidise a profitable industry - but I tend to think of the outcome as evidence that patents sometimes work - the alternatives to the present system are not likely to be as good.
  • by FallLine ( 12211 ) * on Wednesday January 03, 2007 @05:41PM (#17450706)
    Actually, copyright is specifically NOT a natural right in the US, although it is considered one in Europe. That was a major hangup in copyright treaties, until they agreed to disagree.
    Besides the fact that this is really a philosophical debate now, many of the so-called "natural rights" have drifted too, there is considerable debate about this in the US today. Though Jefferson was clearly influential in advocating the view that IP is mere social contract, this was not the predominant view of the time. Try reading this paper [] before presuming that all people who think otherwise are idiots. Many people want to take a very selective view of history by saying that the courts were right in taking a less expansive view of IP rights, but that they're wrong now that it is drifting in the other direction.

    It is also worth keeping in mind that patents and copyrights have important diferences. A strong copyrights has little chance of colliding with the rights of others to create independently whereas a strong patent necessarily demand significant breadth and these create a significant chance of interfering with independent invention (or at least creates the opportunity for someone to make a credible claim). I support strong patent rights, but I can accept a more nuanced view of these than I can copyrights.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN