Nature’s Medicines Need a Congressional Boost

The New York Times, Sunday, July 6, 1980

To the Editor:

The Supreme Court’s decision favoring the patentability of living organ. fans created by genetic engineering was loudly and generously highlighted by the media The implication behind the excitement is that it is an important decision. It is, of course, but not so important as to warrant such excitement.

Far more important in the lives of all of us would be an action favoring the patentability of natural substances in general that bring the promise of better life, indeed of life itself, to untold numbers of patients.

Consider the major features which bring about the availability of any substance with therapeutic potent/al. There are two: creativity and profit. Creativity is the duality of thought that conceives of the idea. It ranges from capitalizing on a serendipitous event, as in the discovery of penicillin, to the long and laborious effort to synthesize the godmolecule, DNA.

Although it would be difficult to quantify, there is little doubt that much creative thought occurs each day in American medicine. The problem arises after the idea of the therapeutic substance has been conceived: It must be profitable.

One of the cornerstones of profitability is the patentability of the substance. The weaker the patent, the less chance of profit and the dimmer the prospect of the substance ever reaching the armamentarium of the physician to cure or prevent disease.

This is not an attack on profit or innovation. It is merely an attempt to make profits work for the benefit of all. But here’s the rub.

In the field of natural substances, patent positions are generally weak. Certainly nature has a more impressive track record than artificial sub stances in the battle against disease. Yet Congress perversely has decreed that artificial, synthesized molecules with toxic potential can be protected by strong patents.

Plants, animals and man constantly hold off the oncoming of fatal and degenerative disease. Something in us prevents bacteria from invading the bloodstream, arthritis from attacking our joints and cancer from attacking us at any age. Natural substances in the brain combat depression, create genius and permit happiness. And they are generally safer than artificial molecules.

So what is the madness that Congress has cast upon us which prevents innovators from bursting forth into the field of nature and discovering the therapeutic wonders it contains?

If economic incentive is essential to bring forth natural therapeutic agents, then Congress should act to structure the appropriate system. Any movement which pushes for national health insurance and ignores natural substances is highly irresponsible, if not immoral.

Let Congress pass legislation that would create strong patents for natural substances. To be sure, the problems are complex. But the result is worth the effort. There is little doubt that nature is a more powerful enemy of disease than molecules created by chemists. Free her, and let the battle begin.

Stephen L. DeFelice, M.D.
Foundation for Innovation in Medicine
New York, June 23, 1980