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Nobel Laureate Attacks Medical Intellectual Property 449

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the corporate-bottom-line-is-red dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who was fired by the World Bank blasted drug patents in an editorial in the British Medical Journal titled 'Scrooge and intellectual property rights.' 'Knowledge is like a candle, when one candle lights another it does not diminish its light.' In medicine, patents cost lives. The US patent for turmeric didn't stimulate research, and restricted access by the Indian poor who actually discovered it hundreds of years ago. 'These rights were intended to reduce access to generic medicines and they succeeded.' Billions of people, who live on $2-3 a day, could no longer afford the drugs they needed. Drug companies spend more on advertising and marketing than on research. A few scientists beat the human genome project and patented breast cancer genes; so now the cost of testing women for breast cancer is 'enormous.'"
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Nobel Laureate Attacks Medical Intellectual Property

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  • by OverlordQ (264228) on Monday December 25, 2006 @09:44PM (#17362552) Journal
    How can you patent something that is a 'naturally' (using that term loosely) occurring genetic abnormality?
    • by mattjb0010 (724744) on Monday December 25, 2006 @09:52PM (#17362590) Homepage
      How can you patent something that is a 'naturally' (using that term loosely) occurring genetic abnormality?

      click [ornl.gov]
      • When do people will revolt and hang those bastards?
        • by AuMatar (183847)
          I got a rope. Anyone with a pitchfork and a torch?
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by contrapunctus (907549)
          When you ask? When money is less important than someone else's life. As individuals, we may be 'good' but collectively, voting with dollars (and expecting return on investments in our retirement accounts), we are 'evil'.
          • by AuMatar (183847) on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @12:22AM (#17363396)
            Its one of the failutes of capitalism- the market is very good at forcing competitive markets to be efficient, but its utterly incapable of making decisions where money is not the only determiner. Thats where government is supposed to step in and fix things. Unfortunately, our current government is so corrupt that it plays ball with the corporations rather than fixes things.
    • by cnettel (836611) on Monday December 25, 2006 @09:57PM (#17362614)
      It's the detection methods and the connection to breast cancer, not the nucleotide sequence itself, that's covered by the patent. Compare this with the original discovery of blood groups for transfusions, that was patentable as well. Coming up with good protocols for inducing the proper antibodies in animals (one way to do it), for example.

      In this case, the specific sequences connected to the disease was not common knowledge beforehand. In addition, you have to come up with relevant primers to amplify the relevant sequence in a specific, yet reproducible, manner to aid detection. I don't think anyone has really tried to challenge the exact scope of the patent, as it might be possible to circumvent it by changing the method or even trying to purify and detect the protein product instead. (However, that would NOT be a trivial thing to do, much harder than the current genetic test.)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DamnStupidElf (649844)
        In this case, the specific sequences connected to the disease was not common knowledge beforehand. In addition, you have to come up with relevant primers to amplify the relevant sequence in a specific, yet reproducible, manner to aid detection. I don't think anyone has really tried to challenge the exact scope of the patent, as it might be possible to circumvent it by changing the method or even trying to purify and detect the protein product instead. (However, that would NOT be a trivial thing to do, much
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by kunji_da_man (1043542)
      probably means that the particular strand of genes that causes breast cancer was found first by the few scientists. They patent this genetic sequence as their IP. When we are looking for breast cancer abnormality and use a machine that examines gene sequences, it is basically looking for that sth these few cheap ass loserlies patented. If there aint no other gene sequence that causes breast cancer for all of life as we know it, they own practically all remaining hope for the breast cancer afflicted life on
      • it's like the silly one-click patents... they didn't patent the "gene".. just the application of sciences to display "that" gene and then act on it to cure cancer. Current state of the art shows there's only 1 way to read a specific gene and the patent would be open enough...like the one click... that it covers "all" approaches regarding genes and a specific type of cancer. More like the recent Microsoft RSS feed, they "jumped ahead" of the govt researchers to patent the method of using the information be
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Dunbal (464142)
      How can you patent something that is a 'naturally' (using that term loosely) occurring genetic abnormality?

            In the US, you can patent anything, apparently. Not only that, but I sure as hell am willing to bet the owner of the material that was used to "find" the genes in question or his/her family hasn't received a penny's worth of royalties...No, they got their $50 for participating in the study. Thank you, bye bye.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      How can you patent something that is a 'naturally' (using that term loosely) occurring genetic abnormality?

      You'll never see a patent claim written for "an anomaly." No one wants to patent a gene that causes a disease - regardless of whether the anomaly is naturally or artificially induced.

      What you will see are patent claims for new inventions that rely on the discovery of such an anomaly and its effects. Depending on what the anomaly does and how you want to treat it, here are some sample claims for su

    • by DigitalRaptor (815681) on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:19PM (#17363030) Homepage
      Ask Monsanto. They have patents on over 11,000 crops, only about 10% of which are genetically modified. The rest are natural varieties, just as God / Nature created them.

      Of course, that could be because everyone that had anything to do with that aspect of the government at that time was a former Monsanto or former Monsanto subsidiary executive (for instance, John Asscroft, former Attorney General).

      When you "own" the government, in time you own everything else, too.

    • by troll -1 (956834) on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:34PM (#17363098)
      Maybe because Article I, section 8 of the Constitution allows Congress to grant exclusive rights to authors and inventors for their respective "writings and discoveries".
  • Yeah, but... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 25, 2006 @09:49PM (#17362576)
    ...the guy who originally lit the candle didn't spend millions of dollars figuring out how to light it. I'm all for equal access, but if you're going to spend all this money doing something then it's only fair to be given the chance to reap the rewards.
    • Re:Yeah, but... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Yahweh Doesn't Exist (906833) on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:35PM (#17363104)
      >the guy who originally lit the candle didn't spend millions of dollars figuring out how to light it

      yeah and the guy who came up with the medical patent didn't learn everything he knew from other people, then get a shitload of government funding to do his research. oh wait, yes he did.
      • Re:Yeah, but... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by UbuntuDupe (970646) * on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @12:13AM (#17363326) Journal
        So it's okay to expropriate the work of anyone, as long as he learned from others and was funded by the government?

        (Note: that was a reduction to absurdity, not an endorsement of either patents in general, or the patents described. Simmer down.)

        I haven't read the article, but if the excepted parts are to be taken seriously -- and I think they are -- the entire argument is rather sophomoric. Pointing to an example of prohibiting Indians to use a traditional remedy because of patents would be a textbook example of an invalid patent (on grounds of prior art). That would show the problems with "a stupid application of medical patents" not that "medical patents as such, take lives".

        The other "point" is about drug companies spending more on marketing than research, but what exactly is this supposed to prove (and people do bring it up a lot)? Is the point that if you don't follow some liberal's wet dream about how you're supposed to spend your money, your patent is somehow less worthy?

        Yeah, let's start enforcing laws based on our sympathies with the litigants -- banana republic in no time!

        Or, presumably, this fact is brought up to somehow imply that a drug company could costlessly redirect money from marketing to research? That won't work either. If the drug became instant knowledge to everyone who might want it, drug companies wouldn't market so much to begin with. In reality, you have to overcome some very steep prejudices of a very protected class of doctors to get them to do it a better way. This means marketing.

        STANDARD DISCLAIMER: unlike many people, I freely admit that I simply don't know whether patents are good or bad. However, I do know that we'll never know the answer if people keep muddying up the debate with these misleading claims.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by textstring (924171)
      Now I know all that text is daunting but if you'd have read towards the end of the article he actually offers an alternative/supplemental way of rewarding innovation - prize funds. Whether these would attract the huge pharmaceutical firms is unknown. However, I imagine they would attract smaller independent research groups in the way the Xprize (and others) have done. If there are $200,000 prizes for getting linux to work on an xbox, i t seems only reasonable that there should be huge cash prizes for develo
  • by Trailwalker (648636) on Monday December 25, 2006 @09:56PM (#17362612)
    Things haven't changed all that much since the days of theChamberlen [wikipedia.org] family.
  • While I am no expert, nor am I really FOR these kinds of patents there is a valid reasoning TO have them. Primarily, it is reasoned that patents, including intellectual, drive innovation as people can actually make a profit on their discoveries as opposed to just being copy-catted. Of course, in practice, it doesn't quite work that way.
    • by Dunbal (464142)
      actually make a profit on their discoveries as opposed to just being copy-catted

            They get "copy-catted" ANYWAY. Change an OH here, add a double bond there, and voila - same or better pharmacodynamics, and I can patent my own penis enlarging medication...
    • the problem is that much of the research is at least co-funded by big govt grants or professors and students from public university... all the taxpayers help with the discoveries... it would seem unfair that only one company would get the profits.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      The problem is that 20 years, or 17 years, or even 10 years, is simply too long in the modern scientific world. It may have taken 20 years back in the 1950s or the 1970s for these sorts of things to (A) turn a profit while (B) not stagnating the scientific community, but that balance does not work well today. A more reasonable compromise might be one of the following:
      • A shorter term for the patent (5-8 years maybe?)
      • A statutory license, as we have with "cover songs". You get $X whenever someone uses you
    • by j_w_d (114171)
      There is no evidence to support the concept that "intellectual property" patents actually encourage innovation. The candle metaphor used in the article is directed exactly at this concept. Anyone conversant with the history of science beginning with Francis Bacon and onward through the formation and growth of the Royal Societies and the other national and international scientific associations knows this. Knowledge leads to knowledge. The very REASON for peer review is to test one's data, methods, and co
  • eminent domain (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Speare (84249) on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:05PM (#17362660) Homepage Journal

    If there's one area where I think Eminent Domain applies, it is to this sort of "property." If the pharmaceutacals "own" a cancer drug, an AIDS drug, a heart valve palsy drug, then fucking TAKE it from them and give it to the world. If they have to be compensated under eminent domain laws, then give them a twenty year extension on their stupid penis pills, their fat-buster pills, or their toenail fungus cures. If they can do it with your house to make a bypass, then they should be able to do it with something that will really benefit society.

    • by jonr (1130) on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:12PM (#17362690) Homepage Journal
      Why not? If you can forcefully let individual "sell" his property for the greater good, why not a corporation? What is the difference between taking a property from a house- or landowner and a pharmaceutical company?
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        What is the difference between taking a property from a house- or landowner and a pharmaceutical company?

        the pharmaceutical company gives larger bribes^H^H^H^H^H^H campaign contributions.
    • Re:eminent domain (Score:5, Informative)

      by sam_handelman (519767) <skh2003@[ ]umbia.edu ['col' in gap]> on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:09PM (#17362976) Homepage Journal
      The parent is thinking along the correct lines but is missing something very fundamental. "Intellectual property" IS NOT PROPERTY. The fourth amendment does not apply! Since a patent is merely a privelege granted by the government, the government can simply give a more restricted privelege.

        That said, there's no need to take away their patents, by eminent domain or otherwise - you can force Compulsory Licensing [wikipedia.org] on them. There's ample precedent for this. The present system of compulsory licensing is simply inadequate to bring, for example, AIDS cocktails into the affordable range for poor Africans, so it needs to be strengthened.

        Obviously, strengthening compulsory licensing of patents would cut into the profits of the pharmaceutical companies (duh), so they're going to fight it tooth and nail; but it's the simplest most conservative solution to the underlying problem.

        I, myself, think that a better solution would be to stop offering patents on drugs at all (as it is basically an immoral practice, as TFA points out) and to provide, not "prizes", but "grants" that move beyond basic biology research (presently funded by grants) and into drug discovery. Elementary math indicates that the cost savings would be huge.

        The government bureaucracy might grow somewhat, although doing a good job of awarding patents (which they don't do) probably wouldn't be that much less bureaucracy than doing a good job of administering drug discovery grants - but the equally distasteful private bureaucracies that currently parasitize themselves off of government graft would atrophy - which any real libertarian (as opposed to someone who claims a libertarian ideology in order to justify their slavish support for the uber-rich) would have to support.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jeff DeMaagd (2015)
      Last I heard (IIRC, NPR's Science Friday), there are more "enhancement" pills and the like being researched than there are medicines being researched that the developing world needs, such as anti-malaria pills. Developing and testing those medicines cost money, and the only way to cost-justify developing medicines is to develop medicines for people that can pay for it.
    • Re:eminent domain (Score:4, Interesting)

      by troll -1 (956834) on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:23PM (#17363046)
      Unfortunately it's pretty difficult to argue for patent reform right now. Because of technology and drugs, life expectancy has never been higher. If any changes are going to be made, congress will have to make those changes. And the drug companies are likely to argue the reason there have ever been so many life-saving drugs is because the patent system works. And congress is not likely to 'fix' something it doesn't perceive as majorly 'broken'.

      Throw into the mix all the money the drug companies have given to politicians [opensecrets.org] to help maintain the status quo and you begin to see how difficult it is to make changes.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by QuantumFTL (197300)
      Right, because the knowledge that any "really important" cure will be immediately appropriated by the government will have no negative effects on companies spending time and money to develop those kinds of cures in the future.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ubuwalker31 (1009137)
      Compensation for a taking under the 5th Amendment must be "just compensation". That is usually the fair market value of the property. Forgetting the cost of litigating this issue with a drug company, *shudder*, do you have any idea how much money drug companies make from a drug??? Something like 40 Billion dollars a year. Is our government going to put up, lets say 5 Billion dollars for a drug? So that the rest of the world can 'free ride' on the US taxpayer? Should other countries have to pony up a f
      • Re:eminent domain (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Chandon Seldon (43083) on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @12:12AM (#17363320) Homepage

        Patents are not property, and should not be considered as such.

        The correct solution here is to change the patent law to make it no longer cover drugs. That will solve the problem very simply.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by fafalone (633739)
          So what incentive would a pharmaceutical company have to spend hundreds of millions designing, researching, and testing dozens of candidate drugs until they find the useful one; then some other company can just copy their formula, sell it for half right after its released, ensuring a massive loss of money to the company that did all the work. It costs money to make new drugs, ALOT of money, if companies can't make that money back they're simply not going to make the drugs. What other methods do you propose
    • You've been confused by the flawed "intellectual property" terminology. The problem is that by treating medical techniques as property, people are killed. The solution isn't to continue to stretch the already-broken property metaphor (i.e. "eminent domain"), the solution is to stop trying to treat ideas as property.

      Very simply, allowing pharmaceutical patents in poor countries is murder.

  • by randall_burns (108052) <randall_burns&hotmail,com> on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:12PM (#17362692)
    The real question is what would be a better way to reward inventors than intellectual property arrangements. IP doesn't reward creation of an invention-but its restriction. It is clear that major corporate interests have abuse IP protection in various ways. The problem is that an alternative system isn't exactly obvious. The economist Henry George proposed replacing the system of patents and copyrights with a system of prize awards over 100 years ago. However, determining what inventions should be rewarded is still going to be difficult.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510)
      The economist Henry George proposed replacing the system of patents and copyrights with a system of prize awards over 100 years ago. However, determining what inventions should be rewarded is still going to be difficult.

      Let the free market decide.

      We need a large-scale system where either a buyer or a creator could publicly propose a "prize" for any new creation of their specification. Interested buyers could put whatever it was personally worth to them into an escrow account and interested creators could b
  • Medical Industry (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bios_Hakr (68586)
    >>'Knowledge is like a candle, when one candle lights another it does not diminish its light.'

    Apparently he was also a Girl Scout at some point...

    The entire medical industry is broken. Probably to the point where it cannot be fixed. Government regulation could go a long way, but who really wants a bigger government?

    1. Stop advertising drugs on TV and in magazines. You are not a doctor. You shouldn't be "asking your doc" if zotramiphil is right for your itchy ass.

    2. Stop developing drugs for stup
    • by Nasarius (593729)

      2. Stop developing drugs for stupid shit. Yes, lots of people have Type2 diabetes. We already have a cure for that; a treadmill. Stop wasting money to develop a drug *just* to make money off a stupid disease.

      But that's the nature of research. Yeah, sometimes it can be targeted, but very often you're exploring some area and discover something completely unexpected, which has a different application.

      3. If a company develops a truly amazing cure/drug, the government should step in and buy it for the cost of

    • Re:Medical Industry (Score:4, Informative)

      by techno-vampire (666512) on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:31PM (#17362780) Homepage
      2. Stop developing drugs for stupid shit. Yes, lots of people have Type2 diabetes. We already have a cure for that; a treadmill. Stop wasting money to develop a drug *just* to make money off a stupid disease.


      Oh, how I wish I could get rid of my Type II diabetes just by getting more exercise. I love to walk and often walk several miles a day, but I still have to take my pill morning and night. Part of Type II diabetes is resistance to insulin, so that even if you have what would normally be enough, you still have blood sugar trouble. I hope that someday, preferably soon, you can learn from personal experience that a treadmill isn't a cure for diabetes.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Bios_Hakr (68586)
        Exceptions to every rule...

        However, the vast majority of health problems in the US are caused by lifestyle. Not everyone who has lung cancer smokes. However, most of them do. No everyone with heart disease eats fatty food. Most of them do.

        Not all diabetes can be cured with exercise and diet. However, if you are overweight and have a bad diet, then that should be addressed before a doc whips out his prescription pad.

        >>I love to walk and often walk several miles a day

        You could walk all day long and
        • Look at the recommendations for body composition.

          As far as I can tell, not one of them takes into account what kind of shape you're in. A 6 foot tall body builder is going to weigh much more than a 6 foot tall couch potato, but which one is overweight? One size never fits all, in clothing or in weight charts.

          Yes, proper exercise and getting down to the right weight is part of controlling Type II, but neither of them will cure it because it's a change in your body chemistry that causes it, not a lifest

        • by Grym (725290) * on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @01:15AM (#17363612)

          Not all diabetes can be cured with exercise and diet. However, if you are overweight and have a bad diet, then that should be addressed before a doc whips out his prescription pad... Once weight and diet are analyzed and fixed, then, and only then, should a doctor prescribe a drug. Too many people take the drug and never fix the problem.

          [In an exam room] Doctor: "Mrs. Johnson, I'd love to put you on a statin to lower your blood cholesterol levels and a beta-blocker for your chronic chest pain and high blood pressure, BUT random-smacktard1337 on slashdot thinks you need to get your fatass to the gym and stop stuffing your face first. So, get to it and check back with me when you're HEALTHY!"

          ...

          Doctor: "What? It's not that simple? Well, that's not MY problem, now is it?"

          ...

          Doctor: 'What will you do in the time between your miraculous transformation from an out-of-shape slob into a disciplined, world-class athlete?' How should do I know?! I only treat knowledgeable, motivated patients; not the vast majority of people--NOW GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!"

          ....

          Doctor: "Hmmph... the nerve of some people...."

          [/sarcasm] All kidding aside, it's quite clear that you have never spent a minute in a real-life clinical setting. Is there a place for preventative medicine? Of course. Could preventative medicine and proper lifestyles have prevented most incidents of type-II diabetes. In all likelihood, yes--but what do you do with people who have diabetes NOW? And what if they CAN'T exercise like they should? (You know, believe it or not, some people have more than one disease--go figure.) And even if they aren't compliant and don't exercise, what harm is there is there in doing what YOU (as a health-care provider) CAN do to help? Aren't lazy or [Insert Flaw Here] people entitled to medical care too?

          Lastly, I think you're being quite flippant about the effects of diabetes when you associate it with benign diseases like Erectile Dysfunction. I'm positive if you asked the staff of any ward unit at any hospital across the country to tell you about patients who have lost life or limb as a direct or indirect result of diabetes, you would find that between them they could tell you about HUNDREDS of cases.

          -Grym

    • My moderator points ran out yesterday. Good post. :)
    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by rjshields (719665)

      2a. Why can an old guy take a drug to make his dick hard when I can't smoke a joint?

      Marijuana does nothing to oppress, instead it opens peoples' minds to think in new ways. Free thinkers are dangerous, so they keep us ignorant about its medicinal qualities and spread lies that it is more harmful than it really is. Give them alcohol to rot their minds and bodies, pornography to desensitize and viagra keep their dicks hard.

      People are also scared of things they don't understand. Unless you've had a toke y

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by twiddlingbits (707452)
      #4 Good Luck, first we got to get rid of the Ambulance Chasing Lawyers. We have too many of them so to "make a living" then invent things to sue about. They file dumbass suits they get disbarred AND pay court costs AND a fine. That'll stop them, but alas too many lawyers are legislators (in BOTH parties) so this is really dreaming.

      Combine 5 & 6: everyone is covered but everyone must get regular checkups. Hypochondriacs are mental cases and should be treated as such.

      #5a; If you work in the USA you pay th
      • by Bios_Hakr (68586)
        >>#5a; If you work in the USA you pay the same taxes regardless of being a citizen, H1-B, or green card holder. Yea, in some cases crooked firms who knowingly hire illegals as employees or contractors (Wal-Mart) don't withhold taxes. I would say no taxes paid no access to health care or the legal system.

        That was actually intended to address US companies firing US employees and outsourcing projects. If you hire and Indonesian in Indonesia to do a job that a USian could do in the US, you still have to
        • by gutnor (872759)
          Anyway, that's very hard in pratice to tax a company for the people it employs abroad.

          * When the US Company doesn't hire anybody, it just fires people home and buys a contract with another company. Example: if Apple buys CPU from Intel, a leasing contract for management car, a maintenance contract for their buildings, well they can also buy a helpdesk contract from a foreign company. Fiscality will only hurt trully international companies that have employees internally employed in multiple countries, and th
    • by istartedi (132515)

      1. Agreed. Precedent? You can't advertise cigarettes.

      2. Disagreed. Impossible to determine or regulate what should or shouldn't be developed.

      2a. Agreed--the war on drugs is being fought by people who failed to learn from Prohibition.

      3a. Somewhat agreed. This system lends itself to abuse in terms of determining what is and isn't a "cost of production".

      4. Partially agreed. Agreed that the lawsuits must end--the purpose of the system must be to weed out doctors who are truly incompetent and a danger to th

    • by shadowmas (697397)
      "Fire assholes and slashdoters. We pay for 8 hours, fucking work them."

      Hmm, so then sir exactly what are you doing posting this rather than f****** work?
    • by bahwi (43111)
      5. Make US employers provide health insurance. Yes, all of them. Call it the cost of doing business in the USA.

      No, quite the contrary, make it ILLEGAL for employers to provide health insurance. Make it a free market instead of a limited one like it is now. Where, "You have to have health insurance from me, or my friends, and we're all in it together."

      A small free market is finally developing, awhile ago it costs hundreds per month for health insurance for myself, I wouldn't be able to be a contractor. Make
    • >1. Stop advertising drugs on TV and in magazines. You are not a doctor. You shouldn't be "asking your doc" if zotramiphil is right for your itchy ass.

      Doesn't go far enough. Huge amounts of money go toward marketing directly to doctors. Doctors should be getting their information from independent tests, medical literature, and the experience of colleagues. Drug companies are spending more money on marketing than on R&D, and their R&D costs more than most people can imagine.

  • Recycled post (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sam_handelman (519767) <skh2003@[ ]umbia.edu ['col' in gap]> on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:23PM (#17362740) Homepage Journal
    Very nice, although I think the list of citations is a little short. Dean Baker [socsec.org] has been saying much the same thing for some time - but he doesn't have a nobel prize. Still I think he makes a more interesting case for much the same thing and Stiglitz ought to have cited him (among others, but I prefer Baker's writings based on clarity and style.)

      I write a new edition of this essay every time the topic comes up (and it has no citations at all, which should not be interpreted as a statement that these are entirely my ideas):

    Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that a method of extracting or purifying a gene, or a gene product (a protein) consists of an invention, worthy of patent, in and of itself. This is distinct from patenting the gene itself - if I can do that, I am patenting an end, and not a means to achieving that end. If I come along and purify the same gene product, by some other technique, I'm violating their patent. Crucially, I will violate their patent even I use none of their actual inventions at all! I am violating their patent because I am seeking the same end.

    At first glance, this might seem similar to product patents as applied to synthetic molecules. However, in those cases the molecule itself is a unique invention. If I develop a particular technique for tending an orchard, I cannot patent trees! Patenting genes that cause diseases is a separate intellectual fallacy that deserves coverage in it's own right.

    This is like patenting the act of killing germs. If a disease is caused by an abnormal (mutant) protein, than the only true cure is to fix that protein - replace it with functional protein, or remove those cells generating the harmful protein, according to the particular condition. The same argument applies to gene-products (proteins) that cause elevated risk for cancer, heart disease and the like. A patent on the gene is basically a patent on all possible cures for that condition/predilection. A gene that causes a predilection for breast cancer should be viewed as a condition in and of itself (which needs to be at least treated,) and not as some part of a particular treatment for breast cancer.

    Finally, I should say our genomes, not just collectively, but individually, are the property of the human race. In a biological sense, they are the human race.

    Bees are generally black and yellow, and have poisonous stingers. Individual bees, however black or yellow they may be, and poisonous their stingers may be, are all 100% bees - they all possess an equal allotment of beeness. Likewise, the quality of humanity is 100% endowed to each of us.

    However, it does not arise from any of us individually. We are all human only because the entire human species exists. The genome of any individual person is not sufficient to specify the human race; the genetic diversity of your fellow human beings is part and parcel of your fundamental human identity.

    The same is true, in fact, of the genetic diversity of all known living things, which are our cousins.

    Many people have a visceral objection to the idea of a gene being owned. Certain of my colleagues are fond of implying that the objections of laymen arise from some degree of scientific ignorance, or a lack of appreciation for the effort that goes into doing molecular biology. I am a molecular biologist myself, fully cognizant of the hard work that is done. I understand all of that quite well, but I come to the same visceral conclusion: you cannot own that which makes us human.

     
  • An alternative (Score:4, Informative)

    by tgibbs (83782) on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:23PM (#17362742)
    Complaints about the patent system in drug development typically founder on one sticking point. Without patents, who is going to come up with the immense sums required to bring a drug from investigational status to clinical reality? One alternative, of course, is a national drug discovery enterprise, funded by tax money. The problem with that, however, is that the funds required are immense, and the risks are high. Who is going to take the blame if the product of a billion-dollar drug discovery effort fails in Phase III trials, something that happens rather frequently to pharmaceutical companies? Not to mention the risks that such an effort would turn into another pork boondoggle, with money being expended in response to political rather than medical needs.

    Stiglitz's proposal offers an intriguing compromise--a system of federally funded prizes for private development of "open source" pharmaceuticals. Moreover, it could potentially coexist with the current patent system, perhaps initially focusing on areas that are underserved by the pharmaceutical industry, such as development of new antibiotics. Of course, the prizes would have to be very large to attract private development, given that the open source requirement would greatly limit the profit potential of the drugs discovered. However, the prizes could reasonably be staged--so much for successfully passing Phase I, so much for successfully passing Phase II, etc. etc.
    • Actually you have that backwards - open researchalways spurs innovation. Notice how most new pharma drugs aren't cures for anything but along the lines of Viagra? You really don't see the type of innovation in pharma that you do in the tech world.

      "The problem with that, however, is that the funds required are immense, and the risks are high. Who is going to take the blame if the product of a billion-dollar drug discovery effort fails in Phase III trials, something that happens rather frequently to pharmaceu
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tgibbs (83782)

        Actually you have that backwards - open researchalways spurs innovation. Notice how most new pharma drugs aren't cures for anything but along the lines of Viagra? You really don't see the type of innovation in pharma that you do in the tech world.

        I've seen some extremely innovative research coming out of pharma. Genuine cures are inherently hard to find, and it doesn't matter who is doing the development. You don't see many cures coming out of academic research, either. Perhaps gene therapy or stem cell the

    • by donaldm (919619)
      In Australia there is CSIRO and some Universities and some of the research is world class. I know other countries spend a small percentage (1 to 5% of GDP) on government research and in many cases there is a world wide cooperation. Where everything becomes skewed is when the basic research is transferred to private industry who seem to want a goose that lays the golden eggs but are not willing to put up any money.

      There are very few private companies that actually do serious research and for those that do ma
    • ...immense sums required to bring a drug from investigational status to clinical reality

      I'm really curious where all that money is going. Maybe stuff is expensive -due- to patents to begin with?
  • by argoff (142580) * on Monday December 25, 2006 @10:32PM (#17362784)

    1. If a researcher looses a monopoly on one patent, but in turn gains access to 10 million other patents - then that is a net gain for invention and for business, not a net loss. The facts bear that out. For example, how most the new drug innovation was happening in India where they don't have patents on drugs, or the less proprietary x86 architecture that took the market by storm in spite of it's design flaws.

    2. Patents do not change the demand for invention and R&D, they only distort the market and cause it to center around invention controls instead of invention related services. Well, large companies, lawyers, and government are good at controlling things. Inventors are good at inventing things, so patents do really not help inventors or small lean innovators.

    3. To control inventions requires physical coercion and violence, and patents are very violent. Like how they arguably held back safety devices in cars for 20 years while millions died needlessly, and like how attempts of patent enforcement in Africa have likely led to over a million unneeded AIDS related deaths. Also, DDT was banned within months of its patent running out, freon too, to make room for bigger markets. But at least the freon one can't be attributed to 50 million malaria deaths.

    4. In the future, technology is likely to bring production back into the home thru 3d printers and nanotechnology. IMHO, patents will require more violence and more government micro-regulation than ever in order to be secured.

    5. A side effect of the patent system is that researchers who share research and innovation between companies are punished. It creates a strong disincentive against collaboration. It forces innovators to spend orders of magnitude more on R&D and causes them and their research to be micromanaged. So patents drive up the cost of R&D by orders of magnitude, drive down quality, and then now they say "well, we need patent monopolies to recover all these costs".

    6. People tend to think that having all these incompatible parts and all these incompatible interfaces on every single car, cell phone, and consumer product - is just a normal part of a free market economy. I speculate that it is not, and that patents encourage these distortions in addition to all the waste and unneeded obsolescence that goes with it.

    7. People tend to think that having expensive pharmaceuticals with all sorts of strange chemical side effects is just a normal part of a free market economy. In addition they think that the shunning natural cures, herbs, and vitamins is a normal function of modern medicine and science. I speculate that it also is not, but another distortion caused by patents.

    8. Patents are not property anymore than slaves on the plantation are. Just cause someone calls something a property doesn't mean that it is.

    In sum, patents don't help inventors, but distort markets to work against them and even punish and isolate them. They are violent, genocidal, coercive, unproductive, inefficient, and drive down profit, quality, and compatibility across markets everywhere. The future for patents does not look promising, but rather to be one of millions of US elderly suffering from high costs and strange chemichal side effects on their medication, and one of a military police state required to enforce them as things like 3d printing and nanotechnology force the commoditization of invention.

    • by evilviper (135110)
      Inventors are good at inventing things, so patents do really not help inventors or small lean innovators.

      By all means, list a few examples... because your claim flies in the face of all logic.

  • by Eric Damron (553630) on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:06PM (#17362964)
    "In medicine, patents cost lives."

    Patents cost lives in more than just medicine. I remember hearing about an African country that turned down a shipment of grain because it had been genetically altered. The fact that it was genetically altered wasn't the problem. The problem was that there were patents on the alterations and the government knew that farmers would use some of the grain to raise new crops. That country chose to let their people starve rather than face the consequences of patent infringement.

    Corporations don't give a shit about people. They could care less if you as an individual lived or died. You and I are nothing but prospective customers, a possible source of profit and it is only to that end they care.
  • by kiwioddBall (646813) on Monday December 25, 2006 @11:22PM (#17363042) Homepage
    ... may well consider spending some of its billions buying out critical patents?
  • FTA:|The chief executive of Novartis, a drug company with a history of social responsibility, said "We have no model which would [meet] the need for new drugs in a sustainable way ... You can't expect for-profit organizations to do this on a large scale."| I haven't looked at the cost to bring a drug to market (from discovery to preclinical work through to NDA filing) recently, but last I saw it was in the region of $800 million US. Most big pharmas are tweaking the winning compounds they already have rat
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @12:43AM (#17363492) Homepage

    Advertising for prescription drugs used to be illegal. After that was "deregulated", it grew to twice the cost of drug R&D. There is now one pharmaceutical sales rep for every four doctors in the US.

    Until the 1980s, drugs developed at Government expense went into the public domain immediately. Now, pharmaceutical companies can buy rights to government-developed drugs.

    Big Pharma has negotiated several special deals to extend patent lifetimes. Patents are extended by the time the FDA spends evaluating the drug. And then there's a "proprietary rights in drug testing data" thing, which means that the company which did clinical testing gets an exclusion right against generic makers which can outlast the patent. And then there's a special extension of exclusivity deal if a drug company pushes an existing drug through clinical testing for children, which can extend the patent life.

    But when the patent runs out, the price goes way down. Claritin used to be over $1/tablet; now the generic version is about $0.12 each.

  • by CondeZer0 (158969) on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @01:56AM (#17363844) Homepage
    If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive
    property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an
    individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the
    moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and
    the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is
    that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it.
    He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening
    mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
    That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the
    moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to
    have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them,
    like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any
    point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being,
    incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in
    nature, be a subject of property.

                                                                                          -- Thomas Jefferson
  • by TigerOC (1043716) on Tuesday December 26, 2006 @12:18PM (#17367344) Homepage
    I was in this industry for 25 years and my father for 25 years before me. I practised in Southern Africa during this period and was an elected representative on the national body of the Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa (PSSA). I can speak on the subject with some authority because I know the background of what it is like for 3rd World economies. Pharmaceutical Companies (PC's) apply differential pricing depending on where they are operating. eg identical medicines are 14% more expensive in the USA than they are in Europe. The major PC's are all in the top 20% of the top 100 listings on the stock exchanges of the world. They give returns of twice as much as their comparative listed companies. Most provide annual returns of over 20% compared to their non-pharmaceutical rivals 10%. An example of the type of tactics they use their patents for could be seen a few years ago in South Africa. The South African pharmaceutical market is divided into 2 categories - State and private sector. The state buys all their medicine on tender. In order to obtain tenders the companies supply at stupid prices and then load the loss on the private sector. Examples shown indicated that some medicines were 1000% more expensive than the tender price. This process led to enormous pressure in the private sector. Over a period of 20 years (1980 - 2000) the component of medicine spend in the total health spend rose from 15% to 34%. The PSSA advocated the importation of pharmaceuticals from the EU or India where they some 30% and 100% cheaper respectively. The Dept of Health formalised this in amendments to the regulations in 2000. They even inspected factories in India and licenced them for supply to South Africa. The Pharmaceutical Industry immediately drew the attention of the Government to their patent rights. The US State Dept was called in to assist. I was a speaker on a panel discussing this legislation in 1998 and seated next to me was this representative from the US Embassy. The threat was made at this discussion that should this legislation be invoked South Afica would be transgressing International Patent Law and the US government would advocate their exclusion from international trade rights. The PC's do not provide anything to their host countries except employment. They utilise a system of transfer pricing for their production. How this works is that the local company calculates the production volumes of a given medicine and the local cost of production. Their parent company then calculates the profit they wish to make and this then becomes the retail price. The local company is then sold the production materials from the parent company. The invoice value is the retail price less the production cost. This in real terms that that they are effectively making no profit in the country of production and therefore pay no tax. This is technically illegal in most countries but is almost impossible to provce since they hold the patent rights on the product and no one can prove the real cost of the product. The last point is that there is very little original research going on currently. Most "new" medicines are computer modelled clones of existing molecules. Research is going on in many State funded institutions and the PC's often buy the intellectual rights or are involved in providing some funding of this research. The issue of the relationship between what they spend R&D and marketing is raised because whenever they are questioned about the high prices they are charging they always point to how much they have to spend on R&D. The other interesting facet about their pricing is how much they charge for "cosmetic" medicine eg treatments for acne or fertility agents. This is a wicked industry and they have great plans and will strangle health care globally.

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