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The RSC Patent Debate — does chemistry benefit from the patent system?

We recently attended a debate on the relative merits (or demerits) of the patent system to chemistry. This took place in the impressive library room at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) headquarters at Burlington House, London.

The chair and panel consisted of excellent speakers with a whole variety of views on the topic.

  • Christopher Rennie-Smith (European patent consultant and former Chairman of the Boards of Appeal at the European Patent Office)
  • Professor Sir Nicholas Wald (Founding Director of the Wolfson Institute)
  • Sir Simon Campbell CBE (President of the Royal Society of Chemistry 2004 – 2006, and former Senior Vice-president, Pfizer)
  • Professor Chas Bountra (Oxford University, Structural Genomics Consortium Chief Scientist, and former Vice-president, GlaxoSmithKline)
  • Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni MBE (Senior Health and HIV Policy Adviser of Oxfam)

The session kicked off with each of the panel members giving a brief overview of their experience and opinion of the patent system.

Probably due to the backgrounds of the panelists and/or the controversy of the subject, the speakers and subsequent debate focused primarily on the pharmaceutical side of chemistry and access to medicines in developing countries.

On the one hand, it was argued that the patent system is essential to help recover the huge R&D and marketing approval costs involved in developing new drugs and that without the economic incentive of patents, pharmaceutical companies would not produce the successful life-saving drugs we have available to us today. The drug Retrovir (AZT) for treatment of HIV was given as an example. It was argued that as patents do not prevent work-around by other companies, innovation is not hindered.

On the other hand, it was argued that a patent system cannot be seen as the only incentive or reason that drugs are developed. The recent race to tackle the ebola crisis was given as an example. Funding from charitable organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has led to discovery of many orphan drugs whose development would not have been incentivised under the patent system.

It was also argued that the patent system limits information sharing in the early stages of drug research, hindering efficient drug discovery. The speaker believed that there were too many patents granted to things like changes in formulation, rather than new game-changing compounds.

However, as pointed out by several members of the audience, the field of chemistry covers a much broader spectrum than just pharmaceuticals. Coatings, liquid crystal displays and nappy absorbent polymer chemistry were all given as examples.

Everyone on the panel and in the audience seemed to agree that the present patent system benefits and encourages innovation across most of the chemical sciences (non-pharmaceutical chemical fields).

To conclude, the panellists were asked what changes they would make to the present patent system, if any. Again, these ideas were all linked to the pharmaceutical industry and the theme of access to medicines.

A number of suggestions from the panel were discussed with the audience, including raising the bar to inventive step (to avoid things like ‘evergreening’) and delaying patent protection until a compound has reached Phase II clinical trials, to allow easier and more efficient sharing of information in the early stages of drug discovery to identify potential candidates.

Alternative incentives to the patent system were proposed such as prize money, charitable funding, and integrating drug discovery into public health budgets. It was also advocated that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) should not make it a necessity for a country to have a patent system, as this excludes many developing countries from trade and access.

Overall, there appeared to be a general consensus that the challenges surrounding inequality and access to medicines are linked to a number of interrelated political, economic and environmental circumstances, not the patent system per se.

The debate came to a close with a show of hands. An unquestionable majority agreed that chemistry does benefit from the patent system. I should mention that much of the room was made up of patent attorneys, but it was a majority vote none the less!

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