Interview with Harriet Washington (Part I): Patenting Life and Corporatizing the University

How do they extend their patent exclusivity?

Twenty years is supposed to be limit. But in reality, corporations can retain, on average, 5-14 more years of exclusivity by various legal “evergreening” techniques.

Corporatization of the University

You’ve mentioned that changes in the law in 1980 allowed universities greater latitude in terms of their interactions with corporate entities. As to how this actually plays out on the ground within a scientific research department at a university or medical school, what’s different now?

In the past, a researcher had not only the law to discourage him from giving or licensing a patent to a corporation, but there was also the culture of medical research itself, which frowned on money-making as an unworthy goal, an unworthy activity for medical researchers. Let me give you one extreme example that illustrates the changes in this culture. Starting in 1989, the Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido paid $85 million over 10 years to establish a partnership with the Harvard Medical School Department of Dermatology’s Cutaneous Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), which granted Shiseido an exclusive license to develop any products developed from the center’s research. Shiseido underwrote the department’s research.

So what does this mean? It means a large cash influx for Harvard, but it also means that these researchers and the Department of Dermatology have ceded control of their research agenda to Shisedo. Marcia Angell, MD, someone who has written extensively and masterfully about the effects of such corporate control of medical research, asked at the time whether this meant that there could be a shift in focus from research on cancer to research on cosmetics. It’s very troubling.

So that is one of the concerns. These researchers involved are employees of a university, but in effect they become employees of corporations. Typically, the corporations will go to university researchers and pitch for them to conduct certain research. If the patent is on a gene or a medication or a molecule, the researchers work on it under the direction of a corporation.

If the corporation says, “We need X number of patients enrolled in a study, and we will pay you approximately $10,000 for each patient you can recruit as a subject,” as has happened, this means that universities are finding patients and getting paid per patient for the research. The corporation will also pay the university additional money for the research operation itself, so that in effect, the researchers have become employees of the corporation.

Then, when one of these researchers appears on television talking about the wonderful research they’re doing, they are identified as researchers from Harvard or Stanford or Yale. But in reality, who holds the control? Who sets the agenda? Who decides what research is pursued? Also, who decides what research is truncated? Because these corporations can, and do, pull the plug on research that they suspect will not make large profits. As I explain in my book, it doesn’t matter to them that the drug might be a medically necessary one that the world needs very badly. What matters to them is the money.