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How to Keep Medical Innovation Strong

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Medical breakthroughs can literally change the course of human history. Antibiotics, the polio vaccine, and insulin have saved untold thousands, perhaps millions of lives. And we all hope for the day when there are cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. In our dreams for major breakthroughs, we ought not forget the incredible gains from improvements that might seem small, but save and improve lives. Unfortunately, some proposals floating around in Washington right now would do just that at the expense of the future.

When I was a young child, our pediatrician had reason to believe I might have Leukemia. I was given a painful bone marrow test and, fortunately for me, the test was negative. If I did have Leukemia back then, the prognosis would have been bleak. Since that time, a breakthrough was made in the treatment of Leukemia with the introduction of Imatinib in 2001. Subsequently, a series of further discoveries have improved its effectiveness: administering the treatment earlier and using it in combination with other treatments, and it has proven effective in treating other diseases, as well. Together, these improvements have increased the 5-year survival rate for Leukemia patients by over fifty-five percent.

In the 1980s, AIDS was a virtual death sentence, not only in the United States, but in countries where its reached staggering epidemic proportions. In southern Africa, some countries had infection rates of over a quarter of the entire population. Today, a person who contracts HIV/AIDS will live another 51 years on average and during that time have such low levels of the virus that they virtually cannot transmit the disease. To be sure, some of this progress is due to breakthrough treatments. Since the HAART treatment was first introduced in 1996, there have been improvements in how the treatments are administered and combined with other drugs. This continuous innovation has extended patient lives by an average of fifteen years and the death rate in the U.S. from HIV/AIDS has dropped an amazing eighty-one percent.

Hepatitis-C infects one hundred seventy million people worldwide.  In the past decade, great strides have been made in treating chronic Hepatitis-C. New treatments have been invented and when used in combination with each other, they cure and average of ninety-five percent of patients with fewer side effects and in a shorter time than in the past. This is an area of ongoing innovation and some believe a complete cure is on the horizon. But the future of achievements like these is directly threatened by legislation being considered in Congress right now that specifically discriminates against biopharmaceutical innovation.

Patents have been at the heart of American innovation from the beginning of our country. President George Washington signed the first Patent Act into law in 1790. Just as the Founding Fathers envisioned, patents provide investors and companies the confidence to spend money (today, literally billions of dollars) on the research and development that it costs to bring better treatments to the market. Without the legal protection of patents to prevent copycats from undercutting them, innovators will invest elsewhere, slowing medical progress.

Over the years, there have been instances in which some people have tried to game the system and improperly extend their patent protections. Of course, there are already laws that limit how much this can be done: inventions have to be new and not obvious in order to receive patent protection; its easier than ever for others to challenge patents and have them nullified; and competition laws prohibit anticompetitive behavior.

All this isn’t enough for some – they want to change the rules drastically. One proposal would redefine competition law so that when a new way to use or combine a drug is discovered, if the inventor tries to get a patent on that new innovation, they would be subject to punishment by bureaucrat enforcers. Another proposal would change the standards for granting patents by defining a new invention as obvious (and therefore unpatentable) just because it is related to an existing drug. If these rules had been in place in the past, there is good reason to believe that the progress we have made against Hepatitis-C, Leukemia, and HIV/AIDS may never have happened. At the very least, we’d still be working with the inferior treatments from decades ago.

It's no secret that health care can be expensive. And even though prescription drugs only make up around fifteen percent of health care costs, drug costs are highly visible to patients. That makes them an easy target. But drastic approaches that undermine the innovation that has defined America since the beginning will do more harm than good. No matter how well intentioned the effort may be, this is the wrong way to go.

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