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Corporations Are Patenting Human Genes and Tissues -- Here's Why That's Terrifying

A medical ethicist explains the dark implications of corporate medical patents and the nightmarish scenario of our medical-industrial complex.

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We've seen this before when pharmaceutical companies, for example, provided sleeping sickness medication, Eflornithine. They provided it only on a short-term basis, for about five years, and then they left. Now the people who are at risk, and I think that's like 60 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, don't have access to that drug. So to me that's a cautionary tale because we need long-term solutions.

And there are other groups of researchers around the world who are also embracing a different non-corporate model. A man named Alan Edwards in Toronto put together a coalition of a lot of researchers. His strategy is one that has worked before for the government. He does not want their discoveries patented. So what they do is every day -- whatever they've been working on that day, whatever solution they come up with, whatever they've identified or characterized that could be medically important - they put it on the Internet. They make it public knowledge, which means it can't be patented.

So there are strategies that are now being embraced to work around corporate control of medical research.

BJ: How has the medical patent gold rush affected the accessibility of life-saving vaccines for widespread diseases?

HW: Well, simply because maximizing the profit on the patent is the focus, not curing the maximum number of people. Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist, put it best. He pointed out that during the period between 1975 and 1997, of the 1,233 new drugs the pharmaceutical industry devised, only four of them were drugs designed for people in the developing world.

The bottom line is that, although it's possible to devise vaccines that will save the lives of people in the developing world, it's not done because people there cannot pay the inflated prices a corporation charges. So they ignored these people in the developing world.

And as I point out in the case of African sleeping sickness, where Eflornithine was found affective against it, people in areas affected by African sleeping sickness cannot afford to pay high prices for drugs. So after that couple of years where they provided it for free, they stopped making it for African sleeping sickness and the exact same molecule, this Eflornithine, is now the active component in Vaniqa, which is used in the West to help women rid their faces of unwanted hair. So women pay $50 a month for Vaniqa, but people in the developing world can't pay that $50 a month to keep themselves alive, to protect themselves against sleeping sickness.

BJ: In your book, you cite a 2009 study from the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that one-third of U.S. clinical trials are conducted abroad, mostly in developing countries, where drugs can be tested more cheaply. Can you discuss the inequity of the fact that most of the test subjects partaking in these trials -- on which corporations are saving millions to perform there -- will either never be able to afford, or have a need for, the drugs being tested on them?

HW: Usually both. But even in the cases where it's a drug, as you say, that could help them, it's not going to help them because they're going to be charged the same high prices as people in the West. And knowing they can't afford it, they don't even provide it to people in that country.

What I find fascinating is that if you think about it, these people in the developing world are providing opportunity to conduct clinical trials that are a lot cheaper and a lot faster for these corporations. Corporations would have to pay a lot more money if they conducted those trials in the developed world. And so actually we're the ones in their debt.

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