Academia: Loosen patent protection for diseases of poor

Carl Nathan
David Russell

Universities should share discoveries crucial to combating diseases plaguing people in poverty, assert two Cornell scientists. They are calling for academia to loosen its focus on patent protection to solve global health threats.

The Cornell scientists, who have decades of experience translating research into cures, say unreasonable financial hopes are driving some universities to withhold invaluable discoveries from the fight against deadly diseases.

The journal Nature published their piece, “Graduation Time: Universities Should Forego Profits From Tuberculosis,” in an October special edition on tuberculosis (TB). The leading cause of death from bacterial infection, TB chiefly afflicts people in developing countries and grows more untreatable and fatal by the day.

“The challenges in developing TB drugs are scientific, logistical, fiscal and societal,” write TB experts David Russell, the William Kaplan Professor of Infection Biology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Carl Nathan, the R.A. Rees Pritchett Professor of Microbiology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

“The complex nature of the discovery research and low profit potential dissuade many companies from working on TB rather than on infections common in wealthy markets or therapies for common chronic conditions,” they write.

The bacteria have developed resistance to all widely used treatments, evolving so rapidly that only complex chemotherapy combinations can combat them. Each drug must not conflict with others, or with treatments for HIV, a common co-infection. Any TB drug that does make it to market spurs counterfeiting, which alters drug composition and accelerates resistance.

“Embarking on such a complex search takes an unprecedented level of social consciousness and cross-industry cooperation,” Russell and Nathan write. “Some companies have risen to this challenge. But universities with resources invaluable to this pursuit haven’t always followed suit. In our years working toward TB cures, pharmaceutical companies uniformly say the biggest hurdle is negotiating [intellectual property rights] with universities.”

Several public-private partnerships are dedicated to developing new TB drugs. In these consortia, academic researchers share up-to-date knowledge of the evolving biology and epidemiology of TB. Pharmaceutical companies and their scientists share treasure troves of chemical compounds suited to drug development; expertise in medicinal chemistry, pharmacology and toxicology, and infrastructure to perform clinical trials.

“Such partnerships provide outstanding opportunities for innovation and efficiency,” write Russell and Nathan. “Unfortunately, this enlightened attempt to address the depleted TB drug pipeline is not always matched by universities. Some universities balk at sharing patents with drug companies, or make unreasonable intellectual property claims, or demand a disproportionate share of perceived income.”

Russell and Nathan say universities should step up and share their knowledge, accepting the low profit potential from intellectual property related to drug discovery for neglected diseases like TB.

“It’s unrealistic to expect income from the IP needed for TB drug discovery,” write Russell and Nathan. “The negligible revenue it could bring pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars companies must invest to turn compounds into drugs. This penchant for fiscal conservatism and IP protectionism are obstructing drug discovery for all diseases of people in poverty. At this critical time, with millions dying every year from such infections, it is imperative that universities re-evaluate their position and become activists for global health.”

Carly Hodes ’10, MBA ’15, is a communications specialist at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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