23 September 2008
By Clive Cookson in London
Published: September 23 2008 16:44 | Last updated: September 23 2008 16:44
The drive to accumulate and defend patents is stifling innovation, particularly in biotechnology and healthcare, according to a Canadian-led international study.
Richard Gold, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal who chairs the International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property, presented the study's findings in London on Tuesday, and called for a more collaborative and trusting approach in the life sciences.
"The old [intellectual property] approach of the biotechnology community has failed to deliver on its potential to address disease and hunger in both developing and industrialised nations. We need to do better, and the [information technology] world has shown us part of the solution," said Prof Gold.
"Look at the way that change has swept through the IT world and brought benefits to millions."
The group did not oppose the principle of patent protection for discoveries. It was concerned at the confrontational way in which companies and universities amassed and defended as many patents as possible.
Case studies showed that aggressive patenting was counterproductive. One example concerned controversial patents awarded to Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based company, for breast cancer genes. If the company and opponents in European and North American public health services had taken a less confrontational attitude, it was suggested, both sides would have benefited.
Prof Gold said reform of the world's intellectual property laws to encourage collaboration would not be realistic. Governments could make more use of existing provisions to enforce licensing and "march-in rights" when patent holders were behaving unreasonably, but change would be most effective if it came from the life sciences industry itself.
Attitudes were beginning to change, particularly in pharmaceutical companies. "I think the leadership is more likely to come from the pharmaceutical than the biotechnology industry," he said. "I have talked to biotech executives who say the message we are giving is the right one, but [they] cannot afford to say so openly."
The expert group backed the idea of more public-private partnerships to share risks during early stages of research, and more patent pooling during the later stages of development and commercialisation.
"The IT industry does it better because IT encountered the limitations of the old business model sooner," he added. "You can see it in the rise of a sustainable open source movement and in the way companies like IBM changed their attitude and now license out IP quite liberally."