Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Patents in health care: Fuel for innovation or secretive black box?

Exclusive patents in the biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical realms of health care can foster collaboration, increasing the speed at which new products come to market. This according to an analysis of 200 exclusive patents by publicly traded firms just published in Strategic Management Journal. But there does appear to be at least one exception to this rule, according to other new research: Genetics.

Evidence supporting patents finds that rather than locking away potential innovations in a black box of exclusivity, such contracts encourage partners to throw their full weight behind projects, since they know that their efforts won’t be undercut by a faster moving competitor. The authors acknowledge that some discoveries can have multiple future applications, and recommend very narrowly crafted agreements that leave open the possibility of taking other product variations to market at a future date, perhaps with other collaborators.

Another new report published in Genetics in Medicine, suggests that the opposite is true for health care applications of genetic discoveries. After reviewing genetic tests for 10 conditions, the authors report that patent holders, who are generally academic entities supported by governmental research grants, were never the first to market with innovative applications of their genetic patents.

Of course, when it comes to genetic testing it might not matter when you consider that not a single genetic test has yet been shown to increase length or quality of life. They have been shown to land health care researchers in shaky political and cultural grounds, however. Academic researchers recently found them on the wrong side of a judge’s order after using genetic material gathered from a Native American tribe to link tribal ancestry to Asian populations. The tribe claims that they were not provided with adequate informed consent, and were outraged that genetics were used to disprove the creation myths that are central to their self-identity and that clearly identify their current tribal land as their place of origin. While the researchers fall back on the argument that they are merely increasing knowledge for the good of all humankind, accidently “disproving” a creation myth in the name of health care is at very least an exercise in poor public relations.

Genetic research unveils at least two fallacies of science: 1. That there is no opportunity cost. In other words, that we couldn’t use the resources being poured into “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” into practices proven to improve health; and 2. That not moving forward means moving backwards. While its argued that halting genetic research could miss chances to cure disease, leaving all of use worse off than we currently are, the fact is genetic research has to date not improved our lives. Then there’s the creepy sensation that you might get from the idea that a corporation can patent something that is naturally created in your body, and is fundamental to your identity as an individual.

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