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Event Review: Patently Obvious?

10 March 2014
Appeared in BioNews 745

Patently Obvious?

Organised by the British Library

British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

Tuesday 4 March 2014

'Patently Obvious?', organised by the British Library, Tuesday 4 March 2014

As part of the British Library's TalkScience season, Professor Jackie Hunter, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, joined a panel of eminent speakers to discuss the role of patents in biomedicine.

Having introduced the speakers - Professor Alan Ashworth, Dr Nick Bourne and Dr Berwyn Clarke - Professor Hunter helpfully highlighted some of the interesting questions in the area. As well as raising topical issues, she surfaced other, perhaps neglected, intellectual property questions such as how to define a discovery as opposed to an invention.

After drawing attention to these more nuanced questions in the debate, it was something of a shame that the discussion focused almost exclusively on genome and drug development patents. That being said, these issues are the zeitgeist and exemplify the more general issues, which the speakers set out with erudition.

The initial discussion by each speaker allowed them to relate the issue to their experience. Professor Ashworth, chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, drew on his work finding the BRCA genes. In doing this, he immediately illustrated the importance of the Human Genome Project and its potential to aid research.

He proceeded to make clear his view on patenting the genome: that it is 'intrinsically wrong' and may 'stifle' research. To support his case, he emphatically pointed out that the BRCA genes would have been discovered without the incentive of commercial gain provided by patents. Despite the evocative language, he balanced this by clarifying that this view is specific to patenting the genome: he believes there are good reasons to have patents in other areas of biomedicine.

Professor Ashworth's compatriots appeared to feel far more positively to the prospect of patents, both in general, and specific to the human genome. Dr Bourne, head of commercial development at Cardiff University, prevented the debate being cast in terms of the 'good' scientists and 'bad' pharmaceutical companies by highlighting the high risk inherent in any research project: only one in 1000 patents generates returns.

Bourne's discussion also appeared to shift the responsibility for the current system from scientists by detailing the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a medium for assessing whether university research has real-world applications and therefore deserves funding. Clarke, a biomedical entrepreneur, expanded upon this point rather directly: 'ultimately, somebody has to pay for research'.

This funding is often down to governments and charities to assess the revenue-generation potential of research. Clarke hit home his point with the example of a highly respected organisation, the Wellcome Trust, which gains a significant proportion of its revenue from patents. Without any intellectual property, it seems almost impossible to get funding from such organisations. He erred only when he, perhaps tellingly, described patents as the 'capitalist' rather than the 'catalyst' for the receipt of funding.

By drawing on their personal experience and giving well chosen examples, the speakers all highlighted a facet of research understandably neglected by laymen: the cost. As Professor Hunter pointed out, drug developments costs hundreds of millions of pounds and the patent life on a drug often gives companies barely enough time to recoup their investment.

Few would disagree that affording such companies the time to earn their money back is fair: after all, drug development is both risky and expensive. Indeed, Professor Ashworth, in mentioning that pharmaceutical companies are the only organisations with sufficient resources to fund phase III clinical trials, implicitly guided the audience to think about what the funding is required for in these trials.

No one would deny that patient safety and compensation for risk are paramount but these elements of phase III trials are expensive. If pharmaceutical companies are the only ones who can pay and they are reasonably only willing to do so with a mechanism to protect their investment, can we begrudge the existence of the biomedical patent?

Patents help to mitigate the risk inherent in a research scientist. The speakers adeptly brought this to the forefront of the audience's minds. While the jury is still out on whether patents are right or wrong, the TalkScience speakers eloquently demonstrated that the realities of science funding mean that they are necessary.

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