Sep. 16th, 2010 12:54 pm:
Patent Medicine

A frequently repeated myth in alt-med circles goes something like this:

Q: If naturally-based alternative medicine __X__ is so cheap and so powerful, why isn't it dispensed or prescribed as medicine by doctors?
A: __X__ is a super-effective treatment for __Y__, but you can't patent it. Big Pharma won't spend funds for research or FDA approval that they can't make money from.

This clever response explains fringe medicine's "fringe" status by "blaming" its own strength: natural cures have been ignored and marginalized because they're so cheap, safe, effective, easy, and natural that nobody could make any money from them. I don't buy this, for several reasons.

  1. Human extractions of natural chemicals have been patentable for over 100 years, starting with the patent for adrenaline filed by Jokichi Takamine on behalf of Parke-Davis in 1900. Acetylsalicylic acid occurs naturally in willow bark, and was patented by Bayer and sold as Aspirin, and has been re-patented over the years in various forms. Even natural genes are patentable, a decision based on the precedent that natural substances were already patentable.

  2. Unpatentable drugs can be re-patented with slight modification. For example niacin may not be patentable, but sustained release niacin is. It's far more profitable for Big Pharma to reformulate and patent promising new drugs than ignore them entirely.

  3. Unpatentable substances can be patented for specific uses. Just as plastic can't be patented but a plastic shape can be patented for a specific use, "use" patents can still be claimed. The substance dichloroacetate is not patentable, but patents have been filed for its use as a cancer therapy.

  4. While you can't patent chicken soup for a cold or renew expired patents, substances which are no longer patentable can still be profitably trademarked. Psyllium husk is not patentable, but has been trademarked and is sold profitably as Metamucil by Procter & Gamble. Ibuprofen's patent has expired, but Advil is still sold profitably under its exclusive trademark and formulation.

  5. Naturally occurring, unpatentable substances are regularly the subject of research. For example PubMed currently lists 23,700 papers researching the various effects of caffeine, and many caffeine preparations are trademarked and profitably sold.

  6. Even if there was a Big Pharma conspiracy in America, there are substantial incentives and alternative funding sources for research. Organizations like the NIH, FDA, private charities, and countries with taxpayer-funded medical systems regularly fund mainstream medical research into otherwise unprofitable therapies. Budget-crunched hospitals in the UK would love to find cheap unpatentable replacements for patented medicines rather than close hospitals and lay off nurses and doctors.

  7. Unpatented medications are already profitably manufactured and sold as generics. Generic medicines must apply for FDA approval separate from the original medicines, requiring  the same  bioequivalence tests showing the same safety and efficacy. Big Pharma may not appreciate Little Pharma, but Big Insurance makes sure that these alternatives are chosen by their members.

  8. Doctors happily embrace zero-profit and/or 100% natural solutions - as long as they're demonstrably effective. Chicken soup provides protein for cell repair and fluid replacement so it's good for colds. PubMed lists 63 academic papers studying its effects, and doctors recommend it so often it's a cliché, even though no pharmacy will ever make a dime from it. Doctors work with patients to establish and follow exercise schedules even though they never make a dime from it. Red wine and omega-3 oil supplements for heart disease, calcium supplements for osteoporosis - literature is extensive and recommendations are common. There is no Big Pharma denial or coverup of anything.
The "unpatented miracle medicine" myth is cut from the same cloth as the 300mpg carburetor, ever-lasting lightbulb, or the free energy perpetual motion machine. If Company X released awesome product Y it would kill demand for other products. Ridiculous. Computer companies didn't suppress $200 netbooks that took sales from $1000 laptops. Movie studios don't suppress the release of really good movies that take ticket sales from really crappy movies. Toyota didn't suppress the sale of the Corolla to increase demand for its Lexus brand. It might happen to a small degree or for a limited time - Apple might hold off releasing its new generation iPhone until shelves are empty of their current-generation iPhones - but no corporation would pass up an opportunity to drive their competitors out of business by trademarking and releasing a product so good and so cheap that nobody would ever want to buy any other product but theirs. A better explanation for why these products don't get approved by the FDA and prescribed by doctors is the simplest and most obvious explanation: because they have not been shown to do what their proponents claim that they do.

Update: Because software is unpatentable in New Zealand I suppose that Big Software won't make or sell programs there anymore.

start new thread