Patent Reform Could Lead to Lower Drug Prices, But at What Cost?

Prescription drug prices in the United States are constantly on the rise, and a new study suggests that the US Patent and Trademark Office is partially to blame.

According to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, new drugs have a median 12.5 years of exclusive market access, despite the fact that current Food and Drug Administration laws only grant five to seven years of exclusivity for new medications and 12 years for more complex biologic drugs.  

The study’s authors contend that the USPTO has been too lax in interpreting the “novel, useful and non-obvious” requirement of pharmaceutical industry patents, ultimately making it too easy for drug makers to continually extend their exclusivity.

The solution, according to the authors, is to make patents harder to secure on nonessential properties of medications, which would require the USPTO to take a much closer look at the link between specific drug properties and their bearing on overall therapeutic value.

It’s not a particularly easy solution for the USPTO to implement and the jury’s out on whether it would have the intended effect.  On one hand, pharmaceutical companies sink billions into research and development, and without that valuable R&D, the drugs we rely on today just simply wouldn’t be possible. But let’s remember that these companies are in business to turn a profit as well, and one of the biggest ways they do that is through this window of exclusivity.

Obviously, for the healthcare consumer, lower drug prices are incredibly desirable. But if drug patents are reformed in this way, would the US run the risk of having pharma companies feel their breakthroughs aren’t protectable, and simply invest less in innovation? Or would this have the opposite effect, forcing companies to push their limits further and result in more groundbreaking drugs?