Six years from now, when my daughter turns 11, she will get a three-part human papillomavirus vaccine that will reduce her chances of getting cervical cancer by about 70 percent. Currently a little over half of American girls get the HPV vaccine, a public health intervention that will prevent tens of thousands of cancers. It's one of modern medicine's few success stories in finding a means of preventing cancer.
Maybe the reason we have so few cancer vaccines is that they're harder to develop than treatments for patients who already have cancer, which are more common. But in an as yet unpublished study, economists Eric Budish and Heidi Williams teamed up with patent lawyer Ben Roin to argue that the scarcity of preventive measures and relative abundance of late stage cancer treatments can also be blamed on the distorting effects that the U.S. patent system has on medical research.
The duration of patent protection in the U.S. is 20 years. All drug innovations get patented at the time of discovery, but late-stage cancer treatments will work their way through the clinical trials required for FDA approval much more quickly, since the effect on patient survival will be apparent within a couple of years. That means fewer years of the patent clock ticking without revenues coming in. For a preventive treatment like the HPV vaccine, the 20 years of patent protection will be long expired before any clinical trial can show whether lives are being saved, which in turn makes vaccines far less alluring investments for biotech companies. It's yet another indication of America's patent system's desperate need for a makeover.