Friday, November 14, 2014

The problem with patent supported drug development - it's slow.

Economist Dean Baker justly notes that patent supported drug development is slow. Not only is it slow, but it is inherently unfair because once a patent issues for a new drug, all further developments around that drug will accrue to the patent holder. No one else will want to work on that drug because they won't get any credit for the work and two, they could get sued for doing so.

This is a winner take all situation. As in so many "races" in technology, the one who gets the patent first wins and then everyone else quits and works on something else. Such conditions stifle innovation and preclude collaboration on new therapies and new technology in general.

This leaves a lone scientist to work at his bench for years and years without much help, unless he is willing to share the glory and the royalties with others. With a patent supported development process, it could take a long time to get all the rent-seekers in the room to agree on how to split the reward.

With open source development, scientists who truly want to save lives can do so, and still find a way to make a living with government or charitable funding. Now that conservatives are running the show in America, we can expect to see our government supported research subject to emaciating funding attacks on the part of the Tea Party. This is just one more reason that open source drug development makes sense. Drug development becomes more decentralized and not subject to the petty motives of any single political faction.

 Open source drug development is a collaborative system that allows many people to research and develop novel new therapies for any disease. Open Source Drug Discovery in India works with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to collaborate on drug discovery and development using open source models rather than the proprietary patent supported development model. It is first being applied to neglected tropical diseases where there is apparently not enough financial interest or it doesn't affect those who would seem to be in the best position to help.

There is one other problem with patent supported drug development that doesn't get much press, but it is noted by Mr. Baker: inappropriate promotion of a drug for a use not originally intended. With patents comes incentives to promote a drug for an inappropriate use or to exaggerate the efficacy or safety of the drug for a given disease. Removing patent incentives would allow the market to work naturally. Where the drug works, it's applied, where it doesn't work, it's not prescribed or recommended. But as long as the patent spigot is there, they will keep pushing the drugs for uses in ways that could hurt patients.

Open source drug development can reduce the time required to develop new drugs and allow everyone to be a winner with affordable health care. With patent supported drug development, there is one thing we can be sure of: there is only one winner.
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