GlaxoSmithKlein pledges patent pool for neglected diseases

Category: Business & Economics | Health, Science & Education
Published on Feb 16, 2009

Some time ago, I reported that Novartis had adopted a wikinomics approach to its diabetes research. After investing millions of dollars trying to unlock the genetic basis of type 2 diabetes, the company released all of its raw data on the Internet, for free.

Hardly typical behavior for a pharmaceutical company. After all, pinpointing their precise genetic origins of diabetes could unlock a treasure trove of new medicines and result in a major windfall for Novartis’s shareholders. But its perfectly rational from a wikinomics point of view. In fact, researchers claim there are far more leads hidden in the genome than any one lab could possibly follow-up on alone. So by placing its data in the public domain Novartis intends to leverage the talents of a global research community to dramatically scale and speed up its early-stage R&D activities.

Now it seems GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is the latest pharmaceutical company to undertake a major course-correction, this time with pledges to provide cheaper medicines in the developing world and to start a patent pool for research on neglected disease. As reported in the Guardian, GSK will:

  • Cut its prices for all drugs in the 50 least developed countries to no more than 25% of the levels in the UK and US – and less if possible – and make drugs more affordable in middle- income countries such as Brazil and India.
  • Put any chemicals or processes over which it has intellectual property rights that are relevant to finding drugs for neglected diseases into a “patent pool”, so they can be explored by other researchers.
  • Reinvest 20% of any profits it makes in the least developed countries in hospitals, clinics and staff.
  • Invite scientists from other companies, NGOs or governments to join the hunt for tropical disease treatments at its dedicated institute at Tres Cantos, Spain.

It’s an intriguing announcement from my point of view, not least because they have adopted strategies I wrote about in Wikinomics (see “the New Alexandrians”) and in my own work on intellectual property.

While the discounted prices for medicines will likely steal headlines, GSK’s pledge to back a patent pool is arguably more significant. While never very popular in the IP-intensive pharma industry, patent pools have been around for some time in industries such as aircraft manufacturing, radio and telecommunications. More recently, intellectual property theorists such as Carl Shapiro, Robert Merges and Josh Lerner have each suggested that the pooling intellectual property rights could help address an array of issues in industries characterized by cumulative innovation, particularly software and biotechnology. Even the USPTO recommended patent pools as a potential solution to problems of access and excessive patenting and litigation in the biotechnology industry.  

If other companies were to follow suit, a patent pool would provide a significant boost to researchers who have been working on treatments for neglected diseases such as TB, malaria, and river blindness. It could also help give new momentum to the open source biology movement

While I congratulate GSK, I do wonder what took them so long and I find myself agreeing with Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières, both of whom argued that the patent pool should be extended HIV.

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