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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 7, 2007

Nonsense. On Stilts. Playing a Trumpet.

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Posted by Derek

A comment in the last post pointed me to an op-ed in today's New York Times by Suketu Mehta. It's on India and intellectual property, specifically the idea of patenting yoga techniques. Mehta finds this both laughable and troubling, while noting that most of the applicants are overseas Indians themselves. I'm no yoga expert (maybe Michael Blowhard can, uh, enlighten us on the issue), but as it goes on, Mehta's piece gets off some remarkably cloth-headed observations on drug patents:

"Western pharmaceutical companies make billions on drugs that are often first discovered in developing countries — but herbal remedies like bitter gourd or turmeric, which are known to be effective against everything from diabetes to piles, earn nothing for the country whose sages first isolated their virtues. The Indian government estimates that worldwide, 2000 patents are issued a year based on traditional Indian medicines.

Drugs and hatha yoga have the same aim: to help us lead healthier lives. India has given the world yoga for free. No wonder so many in the country feel that the world should return the favor by making lifesaving drugs available at reduced prices, or at least letting Indian companies make cheap generics. If padmasana — a k a the lotus position — belongs to all mankind, so should the formula for Gleevec. . ."

There's more where that came from, and if you wish you can drink from this fount of wisdom yourself. Rinse thoroughly. OK, where to start? The whole piece is a panoramic view of the fallacy that chewing a leaf (or finding out what leaves the natives chew) is equivalent to discovering a drug. That skips over some rather intricate and expensive steps - isolating the active fractions of the original medicine, determining what compounds are in there and what their structures are, figuring out what they do and how they do it, improving them to make them less toxic and more efficacious, and figuring out how to dose them. Then there's the little matter of scores of millions of dollars to be spent on clinical trials.

Perhaps I could start by asking for a list of those patents - granted patents, mind you, not applications - that apparently issued in complete ignorance of all that well-established prior art? Sure, I'm game. Anyone who has the 2006 list of the two thousand patents ripping off traditional Indian medicine, send it along. If no one has last year's roundup yet, I'll take the list from 2005 - another two thousand! How many are there in reality, do you think? How many of them come from real drug companies?

If not that, I'd be glad to hear about those drugs that were "often" first discovered in developing countries. How often is that, exactly? While there are examples, I'm rather hard pressed to come up with many recent ones. Despite what you might think from the editorial, Gleevec is not one of them, unless Switzerland is your idea of a developing country. Besides, we're skipping all those steps again if we decide that Madagascar gets all the credit for, say, vincristine. As for bitter gourd and turmeric, even if those ancient sages had filed for proto-patents of some sort, wouldn't their terms have, y'know, expired by now? Patents aren't forever, although you wouldn't know this from reading this stuff.

That brings us up to that "yoga is free, and Gleevec should be, too" argument. Again, I hardly know which handle to grasp. There's always the very basic argument, which I will advance in a small, weary voice, that if Gleevec and other medications were given away for free that it might be difficult to persuade people to spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing them.

But enough logic! Let's Mehta up some similar arguments and see how they fly: because the idea of pasta was given to the world for free, no Italian restaurant should be able to charge money for it. Not bad. . .how about, because my daughter gives me a drawing for free to put on my wall, no one should ever charge anything to see a painting? Here we go - what about those darn Sumerians and their writing? How can the publishing industry show its face, when cuneiform was released straight into the public domain? Oh, I like this, it's a lot easier than science - which I think is the point, right there. . .

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Patents and IP


COMMENTS

1. KinasePro on May 7, 2007 9:49 PM writes...

mmmm... curry

US20070060644: Therapeutic curcumin derivatives

"In traditional Indian medicine, curcumin has been used to treat a host of ailments"


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2. Handles on May 7, 2007 10:03 PM writes...

Yoga definitely aint free at the place my wife goes to. Once the yoga instructors have completed their expensive training and registration, they should work gratis for the good of mankind.

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3. Santosh on May 7, 2007 10:54 PM writes...

I eat Curcumin virtually everday as part of my traditional Indian meal...but the traditional method also involves putting turmeric (curry) powder straight into very hot oil so that it sizzles, and then adding vegetables/meat into it. I wonder how much of the curcumin actually stays intact.

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4. mike on May 8, 2007 7:11 AM writes...

Well, my company will be relieved to hear that traditional Indian medicines can cure all ailments. The company can now shut down our tropical medicine program, since it is obviously not needed, correct?

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5. Datadriven on May 8, 2007 8:06 AM writes...

I gotta tell ya, I was worried about the safety of our trade secrets that are being outsourced to India, but now that I read those words of wisdom by Mahta, I feel so much better!!

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6. PS on May 8, 2007 10:51 AM writes...

There are too many stupid socialist types in India - How can one expect some socialist/commnuist type to come up with anything useful - and one can expect the NY Times to give them a forum to spew dumb crap.

I think I know what the yoga deal is all about. Bikram' Yoga (http://www.bikramyoga.com/) has series of postures which are done in a specific sequence in a heated room (100-105 F). I go to Bikram' once a week and can personally vouch for the health benefits (its absolutely awesome for weight loss).

As far as I know, Bikram put his series of postures together and when combined with the heat - I think provide a health benefit. As such, I dont think that he can apply for a patent on the individual yoga positions - but I think it should be OK to apply for a patent (or copyright or something) on the sequence of postures so that other people cannot teach/charge money for something he put together.

But it would be too much to expect some idiotic communist type to dissect these issues and make a coherent argument for/against it.

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7. PS on May 8, 2007 10:54 AM writes...

There are too many stupid socialist types in India - How can one expect some socialist/commnuist type to come up with anything useful - and one can expect the NY Times to give them a forum to spew dumb crap.

I think I know what the yoga deal is all about. Bikram' Yoga (http://www.bikramyoga.com/) has series of postures which are done in a specific sequence in a heated room (100-105 F). I go to Bikram' once a week and can personally vouch for the health benefits (its absolutely awesome for weight loss).

As far as I know, Bikram put his series of postures together and when combined with the heat - I think provide a health benefit. As such, I dont think that he can apply for a patent on the individual yoga positions - but I think it should be OK to apply for a patent (or copyright or something) on the sequence of postures so that other people cannot teach/charge money for something he put together.

But it would be too much to expect some idiotic communist type to dissect these issues and make a coherent argument for/against it.

Tip for Santosh - If you are worried about your curcumin - dont throw your damn turmeric into hot oil. Its really not needed - you can simply sprinkle it on the food sometime during the cooking process.

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8. Wavefunction on May 8, 2007 11:53 AM writes...

"There are too many stupid socialist types in India"

I couldn't agree more...it's a strange mixed situation out there. On the one hand, there is a lot of liberalisation and globalization, with a largely free market economy. On the other, there are many whose mentality is inherently socialist and who want to resist privatization. One of the main problems is the communist party, which forms a minor but essential part of the coalition government. That's why the government unfortunately has to listen to what those idiots keep saying, whether they like it or not.

There's also a guy in India who has patented a specific breathing pattern.

About the curcumin, one thing I can say is that sizzling the curcumin in hot oil gives a very characteristic traditional India taste that cannot be obtained from sprinkling it. But to Santosh, I say that I wouldn't worry too much about it because the curry powder has to endure the hot oil only for a few seconds before you throw in the other ingredients.I would think that at least 50% of the curcumin stays untouched.

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9. Datadriven on May 8, 2007 12:15 PM writes...

By the way, what is the ED50 for curcumin for the treatment of diabetes (or piles for that matter)? I'll bet it is similar to that for the treatment of menopausal symptoms with isoflavones (soy) -- huge!

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10. Hap on May 8, 2007 2:27 PM writes...

So it's OK for generics manufacturers to sell drugs they neither invented, tested, or refined (while the patent is still valid of course - to do so after the patent is part of what the patent is there for), yet it's not OK for the companies who did so to make money from their own inventions? It would be one thing for the countries who wish to negate patents to assert that the products should be available to all (in which case one could ask why they believe people will spend money to invent drugs if they can make no money from them in turn). Asserting that others' patented inventions should be given freely while one profits from such inventions seems transparently hypocritical.

Apparently, however, this wasn't transparently hypocritical enough for the NYT. If I wanted irrational criticism of drug companies, I'll go to a Mathias Rath fan club meeting rather than read the NYT. All the access to sources and people in power is less than useless if your emotions lobotomize you. Just because you dislike the current drug situation doesn't mean that I need to read what you have to say. If you lack enough logic to see the obvious hypocrisy of the positions you provide a soapbox for, why would anyone think you actually have something useful to contribute to the problems you "discuss"?

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11. daen on May 9, 2007 1:45 AM writes...

I'm surprised you're taking this as seriously as you seem to be, Derek. Suketu Mehta is a writer of screenplays and an award-winning author of fiction, not a qualified commentator on IP issues or drug discovery. But then again, you could write your own Op-Ed piece to point out the fallacies, which I'm sure the NYT would be happy to publish.

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12. Derek Lowe on May 9, 2007 8:26 AM writes...

I think the reason this thing worked me up so much is that (1) it may well be representative of how fuzzy an idea many people have of these issues, and (2) it got published in the New York Times. They've never shown any inclination to publish any of the op-eds I've pitched them, that's for sure. . .

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13. Sabrina on May 9, 2007 8:34 AM writes...

Loved the post, Derek, but I think your attempts to draw additional arguments based on Mahta's were a little off. He says: since India gave us yoga positions for free, we should give India free drugs. Therefore, since the Italians gave us pasta for free, we should give them free drugs, and since the Eqyptians gave us writing for free, then we should give THEM free drugs. So I guess that since we have gotten a lot of free stuff from the whole world, then we have to give EVERYONE free drugs.

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14. wavefunction on May 9, 2007 11:29 AM writes...

daen: i think that's the problem. mehta is not qualified to talk about IP, michael crichton is not qualified to talk about gene patents, a lot of other columnists are not qualified to talk about global warming; so why let them pen their thoughts and let the millions of readers who read the NYT get a chance to take them seriously? isn't the NYT doing a little disservice to the public there?

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15. SRC on May 9, 2007 12:38 PM writes...

India gave us yoga for free, let's give them modern dance for free. Like for like.

I know. It's a gift.

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16. TNC on May 9, 2007 12:47 PM writes...

It's worth mentioning part of this is the absurdity of USPTO's seeming willingness to patent anything. Not quite sure why, but it seems to be the case.

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17. Morten on May 9, 2007 1:10 PM writes...

There are too many stupid generalising types in the U.S. (I'm assuming that you are from the US since you said nothing else)

India has more than a billion people and some states are more different than the various countries of the EU. Everywhere in the world there are idiots who see someone with more money than them and then feel justified in demanding that they should have some of that money. It happens every time someone wins the lotto for instance.
But I see your point - I for one don't see how the NYT editor can defend printing such utter bull without inviting someone to write a rebuttal to be printed next to it.

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18. Chrispy on May 9, 2007 2:13 PM writes...


One bit of solace is that it takes so long to do all those tricky and expensive things, Derek, that by the time you're done that patent will have expired if it is a few years old when you started.

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