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The Value of Being Able to Patent Drugs

New Scientist Short Sharp Science blog: A cheap and simple cure for cancer?

It is rare to find a drug that sweeps away decades of assumptions and reveals a radical approach to treating all forms of a disease. But a simple, small molecule called dichloroacetate (DCA) has done just that - and to that most dreaded of diseases: cancer.

The new findings, might also force a rethink on what actually causes cells to turn cancerous in the first place.

There's a hitch: dichloroacetate is an old drug and so cannot be patented. The upshot is that pharmaceutical companies can’t stop rivals making and selling it more cheaply, so it’s not worth their while to go to the huge expense of testing it in clinical trials.

This is not a new problem. Many drugs are left on the shelf because companies cannot make lots of money from them. It has happened for diseases that affect mainly poor people, such as TB, although there are now an increasing number of initiatives to help deal with these cases. But cancer is historically a disease that chiefly afflicts the rich, and testing DCA will need a one-off effort.

Drugs companies will be falling over themselves to find a patentable drug with similar action to DCA. Any of these that reach the market will be hugely expensive. It would be a scandal if a cheap alternative with such astonishing potential were not given a chance simply because it won't turn a big enough profit.

No Patents, No Innovation, apart from relying on philanthropy or Governments is there a way round this?


Welcome Trust? Cancer Research? Bill Gates? This sounds perfect for philanthropy.

Note the comments include a reference to a patent filed on finding a new use for this drug. This is one way around it.

Even if the patent system is reformed, the way to reward finding new uses is going to involve some kind of payment to the finder that is as good as finding something new (after development costs are taken into account).

DCA can be patented today for new purposes. See

1) Univ. of Alberta (UA) did file for DCA patent for anticancer purpose 10/19/06: Patent: http://www.wipo.int/pctdb/en/ia.jsp?IA=CA2006/000548&LANGUAGE=EN

2) There also are other filed patents for usages of DCA in other cases (e.g. cerebral ischemia): http://www.freepatentsonline.com/4631294.html

and 3) USPO 6,727,284: Postsurgical treatment with dichloroacetate

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