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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 May 26; 334(7603): 1079.
PMCID: PMC1877920

Academics should use their intellectual property to produce cheap drugs for poor countries

It is time to stop leaving the development of new drugs entirely to the marketplace, say two London academics. Universities should not only retain control over their intellectual property but use it for long term social goals rather than short term revenue, they say.

The physician Sunil Shaunak, of Imperial College London, and the chemist Steve Brocchini, of the School of Pharmacy, London, were speaking last week at a meeting of the House of Commons all-party pharmacy group.

Most drugs begin their life at high prices and under patent. In due course they come off patent, and their price falls. “It's time for a paradigm shift,” said Professor Shaunak. “We need to think about medicines that are affordable from day one.”

Although the two academics' principal concern is for developing countries, they point out that even in rich countries some drugs are becoming unaffordable. At present, they say, drugs devised in the public sector are taken forward under a costly private industry model. “The system we operate in universities is really developed by industry for industry,” said Professor Shaunak.

What convinced them of the feasibility of an alternative approach was their successful attempt to devise a cheaper variant of the interferon protein used to treat hepatitis C. This must linger in the body long enough to be useful—a goal that is achieved by attaching a sugar group to the outside of the molecule.

Professor Shaunak and Professor Brocchini managed to break a chemical bond within the interferon molecule, inside which they were then able to attach a sugar. Besides being equally effective, this new molecule should also be more stable in hot climates.

Instead of selling their patent they founded a company and went into partnership with an Indian drug manufacturer, Shantha Biotechnics in Hyderabad. Their aim is to develop the new agent at a fraction of the price of the existing treatment.

Also speaking to the parliamentary group was Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). Its members have nothing to gain from a scheme like that of Professor Shaunak and Professor Brocchini. But neither does the ABPI view the pair's enterprise as presenting an imminent threat. So Dr Wright made little direct comment on it in the meeting. Instead he took a more oblique line, preferring to nail what he called “a few myths,” such as the hope that cheap drugs will by themselves improve health worldwide.

He went on to insist that drug companies carry out research that is relevant to the needs of developing countries. He reminded his audience that a number of ABPI's members are involved in public-private ventures designed to make their expertise available in tackling diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

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