A former chairman of the opioid giant Purdue Pharma has been listed as an inventor on a new patent for a treatment of opioid addiction. Some in the pharmaceutical field are now questioning if this double-dipping in the formation and treatment of opioid addiction is an overstep of patent laws.
David Herzberg is an associate professor at the University of Buffalo and a historian with a focus on the opioid epidemic and prescription drugs. Born from his knowledge of the industry, Herzberg fears that the new patent for the opioid treatment will make it difficult for poor addicts to afford treatment if it keeps the prices high. The new treatment doesn’t have a name yet, but is labeled Patent No. 9861628 and is in the form of a fast-dissolving wafer that contains buprenorphine.
The patent is held by Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Purdue Pharma. According to their vice president and general counsel, James P. Doyle, no money has been made from the patent as they do not have a product that has been developed or approved yet. Doyle says that the buprenorphine-based patent was developed over a decade ago and that if they do develop a product under the patent in question, they will not gain profit through commercialization.
The issue of profiting is an important one, as intellectual property laws are designed to give their owners the exclusive right to profit from a work in a set period of time. As that period of time dictating exclusive rights for drug companies is usually less than 10 years once a drug goes on the marketplace, the pharmaceutical industry has taken to creating a series of protective patents around products.
To extend their monopoly over a certain drug, companies will layer in secondary patents with tactics called “product-hopping” or “evergreening.” According to patent law expert Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, this patent strategy gives the pharmaceutical industry a greater financial return than seen in any other industry. A drug company can win a new patent by making small tweaks that are enough to meet the standard of being new and non-obvious. Often, these changes are as minor as making a twice-a-day pill into a once-a-day pill.
According to Dr. Robert Pearl, a professor at Stanford University, allowing a pharmaceutical company a monopoly on a certain drug can hurt patients. When a person has a particular disease with a single treatment in the form of a sole-source drug, the drug company that owns that drug’s patent can keep other providers out of the market and create exorbitant prices. The patient then falls into a hole of medical debt or they suffer without the treatment they need.
In the case of opioid addiction treatment, Herzberg believes that whatever the best way to treat people with addiction is what should be offered on the market for treatment. Herzberg maintains that patent battles are not how drug policy should be made.
“It’s hard not to have that reaction of, like … these vultures,” says Herzberg.