Patenting – not always black and white

How big a role does business play in getting new diagnostics and treatments to patients?

A pretty important one, argues one of our leading experts on the commercialisation of healthcare in a new podcast exploring its impact in breast cancer research and care.

The podcast accompanies the latest in a series of public engagement events on breast cancer genetics which I attended earlier this month, organised by the Progress Educational Trust, a charity working on policy and public engagement around genetics and related areas.

An expert panel featured Dr Angela Kukula, who is the Director of Enterprise here at The Institute of Cancer Research in London, alongside people with a variety of other perspectives – a representative from the health insurance industry, a former breast cancer patient, and a lawyer specialising in biomedical intellectual property.

I went along to hear the panel discuss the impact of commercialisation on breast cancer research, treatment and management. Dr Kukula’s talk and the accompanying podcast focused on the key role that partnering with companies plays in taking the ICR’s research findings to patients. We have blogged about this before and you can read more here.

One of the topics that came up several times in the discussion was the role of patenting in cancer research, and Dr Kukula explained the ICR’s patenting and licencing policies – which seemed to surprise a few members of the audience. Some did not expect academic institutions like the ICR to hold patents for their intellectual property, but perhaps they began to appreciate that the issue of patenting is not as black and white as they had imagined.

Dr Kukula described the different approaches the ICR takes to patenting. She explained that for technologies where large investment is needed from a company to take the product to patients – such as a potential new drug – we would usually file a patent, since otherwise a company might not be prepared to invest in their development.

The debate got really interesting though when we hit on the topic of gene patenting. Some members of the audience seemed surprised that the ICR holds six patents that include genetic sequences, and Dr Kukula talked through just why this was necessary to preserve – rather than constrain – academic freedom.

She explained that the ICR and other not-for-profit organisations sometimes chose to file patents defensively to prevent commercial organisations from doing so – since these companies would otherwise retain for themselves the exclusive rights to gene sequences.

It is the ICR’s policy that maintaining exclusive rights to genes is likely to be detrimental to public health, so when we patent DNA sequences we aim to maximise patient benefit by making rights available on a non-exclusive basis to as many organisations as possible.

The rest of the discussion covered topics such as alternatives to patenting to protect IP, debate over who should have access to patient data and what they might want to use it for, and health and life insurance for cancer patients.

If you missed the event you can listen to the podcast featuring interviews with the speakers where they discuss the key messages that they planned to make during the debate. It’s worth a listen – it certainly introduced me to ideas that I hadn’t thought about before, and the event flagged up just how many misunderstandings there are when it comes to the role of business in healthcare.

The final event in the series will be held on Thursday, and looks at the facts, fiction and future of breast cancer risk – more details can be found here.

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