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June 9, 2010
Running Out of Decent Molecules to Patent?
Yancey Ward, who comments over at Megan McArdle's site at The Atlantic, has started a discussion over there on drug patent issues. There are a couple of things worth talking about here (such as how to handle combination therapies), but I wanted to bring up a particular issue first to see what the readership here makes of it:
". . .It is getting increasingly difficult to patent small molecules because their structures are increasingly found in the ever growing patent literature for completely different targets. I know for a fact that a lot of projects begin on a less than optimal structure for reasons of patentability alone."
How much of a problem is this? I know that sometimes it can be a real roadblock, particularly in areas where particular structural motifs get (over)used. I've been in on some of those projects myself. And "useful chemical space with no prior art" is a large (but finite) resource, which we are using up, as people have realized for years.
But it would be very interesting - although probably impossible - to know how many total projects across the industry have to start from a bad position because of patentability issues. That can be partly a problem of your own screening collection, which is something every company has to guard against. If you have some big, long-running projects that have cranked out a lot of similar-looking chemical matter in certain areas, these things are naturally going to be over-represented in your corporate screening files. If they're really useful structures, the challenge (after a while) becomes how to avoid starting off yet another program from the same general structures, in order to avoid their complex IP and shrinking freedom to operate. The less-trampled your compound collection is, the better off you'll be when something hits from it.
That said, the only projects I've been on that came to a halt because of patentability trouble did so because someone else popped up in the middle of things with coverage of exactly what we were working on. It happens! Other projects have gotten rather complex, as the trends in the active compounds kept pushing us closer to someone else's exemplified chemical matter, but we generally can find a way around that. Now, if we tried to total up the amount of time and money spent in that way, in working around other people's claims, that might truly add up to something alarming. . .
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