Bringing MIT technology to the world

The Institute should take the lead in bringing medical innovations to developing countries

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The authorship of this article has been revised to include Sarah Sorcher, who was inadvertently omitted from the original submission.

MIT announced this week that it would be assisting neglected disease research by putting its patents into a patent pool sponsored by pharmaceutical company GSK for use by neglected disease researchers around the world.

As a major academic innovator, it is important that MIT look to increase the global impact of its medical innovations. But is MIT doing enough?

MIT develops patented technologies in many areas that can have a potentially profound impact on global health. New treatments emerge each year for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. These diseases have strong markets in the United States and are by no means “neglected,” yet the majority of the burden for these diseases lies in developing countries: For example, the World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of deaths from diabetes occur in low and middle-income countries. Despite this enormous need, new treatments for these diseases too often are priced out of reach for patients in developing countries.

What can universities do to make sure the products developed in our labs reach the people who need them the most? MIT can provide part of the answer by joining a new multi-university initiative that calls for collaborative efforts to bring about equitable dissemination of medical technologies. We urge MIT to support this important development.

In November of 2009, the Association of University Technology Managers and a core group of six major research universities, including Harvard University, released the landmark “Statement of Principles and Strategies for the Equitable Dissemination of Medical Technologies.” By endorsing the principles outlined, institutions commit to a flexible range of global access licensing practices. One such practice is to require its licensees — the companies that develop and commercialize academic technology — to price their products affordably in developing countries. Another option for the signatories of the statement is to liberalize access to medically relevant intellectual property in poor countries, while retaining strict patent protections elsewhere.

The benefits of such behavior can be tremendous. Ten years ago, researchers at Yale University developed an antiretroviral drug, stavudine, which revolutionized treatment options for patients with HIV. Yale licensed its technology to Bristol-Myers Squibb, which developed and commercialized the drug. For the poor in AIDS-stricken countries, however, stavudine was priced far out of reach. AIDS continued to be a death sentence to those people until a generic manufacturer, Aspen Pharmaceuticals of Cape Town, stepped into the market in South Africa with a 96 percent reduction in price. Bristol-Myers filed a lawsuit against Aspen for patent infringement, but widespread outrage and negative publicity forced Yale and Bristol to drop the suit — with no negative financial effect for either party.

The statement has now garnered 23 endorsements from institutions including the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. MIT was asked to join the initiative, but declined. As MIT students, we find this stance difficult to reconcile with MIT’s mandate to advancing technology in the public service, and its mission to “bringing knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.”

The impact that generic drugs have had on the developing world is unquestionable. Generic antiretrovirals, key drugs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, are often ten times cheaper than their branded equivalents. By procuring generic antiretrovirals, the U.S. federal AIDS relief agency PEPFAR saved $64 million in 2007 alone, which has made medication available for countless people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Drug developers that agree to allow generics lose little. Less than five percent of a pharmaceutical company’s revenue is generated in the developing world. By giving up a portion of this already small profit, drug developers provide an avenue to affordable life-saving medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and devices to millions of people who survive on less than two dollars a day. In addition, humanitarian licensing generates positive publicity by helping the developing world.

As the forerunner of research universities in terms of volume and quality of patents registered, MIT possesses the responsibility and power to shape the landscape of global access licensing. In 2009 alone, MIT acquired 153 U.S. patents, filed 131 U.S. patents and disclosed 501 inventions. Upon endorsing the statement of principles, MIT would take a leadership role, contributing to best-practices with other members of the endorsee consortium and contributing to revisions of this living document every two years.

In the past, MIT has taken bold steps toward increasing public access to the fruits of our innovation. MIT pioneered a mandate, the most progressive of its day, to open access to MIT-published research literature in 2009. OpenCourseWare made our cutting-edge teaching available to any English speaker with an Internet connection. We look forward to MIT reasserting its leadership in the ethics of science in the service of humanity by endorsing global access licensing for academic medical technologies.

Karolina Maciag is a MD/PhD Candidate at Harvard Medical School/MIT (HST). Mary Xu is a member of the Class of 2011. Leonid Chindelevitch is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Mathematics. Sarah Sorcher is a JD/MPH at Harvard Law. Sarah Mok Class, Jess Ho, and Manjae Kwon are members of the Class of 2010.