What is a patent in the pharmaceutical field? It is the legal act that establishes a company’s orpharmaceutical laboratory’s ownership of a specific finding. The aim is to obtain a monopoly, that lasts 20 years, on the sale of the drug that can potentially be developed based on this finding.
Can a scientific institution decide to not patent its own research without compromising its ability tofunction? The experience of the Mario Negri Institute shows that it is possible.
For over 50 years the Mario Negri Institute of Pharmacological Research, going against conceived wisdom, has never patented its own research. This is not because we are opposed to patents in the medical field: in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were no patents for drugs in Italy, the institute argued for the need for patents as incentives to promote scientific innovation.
Why, then, do we do we continue to opt out of the patenting system?
Because we want to be free. Free to choose which direction to go in and which research topics to select. If our aim were to acquire patents and use them, that would inevitably move our focus towards the most financially rewarding research.
Choosing not to patent discoveries prevents conflicts of interest. Inevitably, being a patent holderpushes you to promote and defend your product. For drugs, for example, this may lead to risk-benefit assessments that are not always objective.
If a patent leads to the development of a drug– which does not happen very frequently – it is difficult tobe objective. The sale of the drug involves royalties and attempts to maximize these become inevitable. In addition, many researchers fill advisory roles, so they are frequently asked for advice from regulatory authorities and the National Health Service. How can they be expected to be objective about drugs or the companies that produce them if they have a professional or personal financial interest in their success, or in how competitors fare?
Obtaining a patent requires confidentiality and secrecy, while science, and particularly biomedical science, must be completely open and transparent. The publication of results can have incredible consequences: it can change the course of other groups’ research and be a starting point for other discoveries. Researchers have a duty to provide information to the public through the media, and therefore must communicate freely without embellishing or omitting any information. They must be prepared to provide unbiased and clear information when:
· drug manufacturers exaggerate the positive effects or minimize the harmful effects of their products,
· the likely benefits of a treatment are overstated,
· when the prices of drugs are disproportionate and unsustainable.
Therefore, researchers and their institutes would ideally remain above the suspicion of having a financial interest in the matters they inform the public on. It is easier to be impartial if you have no direct financial interest in a product or service.
In a world that requires more and more multidisciplinary collaborations with other institutions, it is easier to interact when collaboration does not conceal the potential intention to use the ideas of others in order to take advantage of their patentable discoveries.
In conclusion, we do not dispute the validity of companies protecting their products through patents, but we suggest that when academia and the pharmaceutical industry cooperate, their respective roles must be clear and beyond reproach from an ethical point of view. There must be genuine scientific goals that are complementary and do not represent attempts to promote products rather than scientific advances. Scientific institutions should not accept research funds that obscure requests for other kinds of support.
Maintaining this balance between the need to secure funding for scientific research and the need to remain independent and not give up one’s a freedom, dignity and ability to be critical, is a difficult and complicated task. This is particularly difficult in Italy, where public funds are very limited and not managed well. Therefore, it is important for the general public to be aware of the difference between those who are focused on financial gain and those who are interested in the wellbeing of society, in order to fully support the latter.