Azara Blog: A tweaked Hepatitis C drug has been discovered

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Date published: 2007/01/02

The BBC says:

Researchers who have found a way to bypass the legal patent on an expensive drug say others should follow suit.

Imperial College experts have developed a potentially cheaper version of an existing Hepatitis C drug by altering the molecular structure.

They have also called on other universities and charities to retain the rights to new discoveries, rather than sell them to big drugs companies.

The industry warned any such 'new' drug may need dedicated safety trials.

The work of Professor Sunil Shaunak, an expert on infectious diseases, and his colleague, Steve Brocchini, from the London School of Pharmacy, was funded by, among others, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Wellcome Trust.

The most effective drug treatment for the Hepatitis C virus is a version of a naturally-occurring molecule called interferon, which has been modified by coating it with sugar to allow it to remain in the body for longer.

The patent for the resulting drug - pegylated interferon - ruled out any other pharmaceutical which involved interferon coated with sugar.

However, the Imperial team found a way to place the necessary sugar elsewhere on the interferon molecule instead, effectively creating a new medicine not covered by the patent.

They plan to find a way to develop and market this alternative without involving pharmaceutical firms, at a fraction of the cost of the original medicine.

Cheers to the people involved for trying to produce cheap drugs. On the other hand, this story has been hyped way beyond reason (on television and radio, not just on the BBC website). This is only one drug and if it really is novel, as claimed, then presumably it does indeed need expensive drug trials to prove it does not have some serious side-effects. And with the team crowing about patent busting they are just going to encourage the pharmaceutical companies to apply for patents with ever wider scope. (This happens already in IT and telecoms.) And finally, the cost of drugs is only one part of the story. There is also the (costly) health system infrastructure required to deliver the drugs, which is lacking in many countries. It is unfortunate that scientists on step one of a lengthy and fraught process feel it is necessary and desirable to hype their story. They should stick with the biochemistry, which is no doubt impressive.

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