The war over intellectual property rights has opened up a new front as London scientists kick off the new year with a shot across the bow of Big Pharma:
Two UK-based academics have devised a way to invent new medicines and get them to market at a fraction of the cost charged by big drug companies, enabling millions in poor countries to be cured of infectious diseases and potentially slashing the NHS drugs bill. Sunil Shaunak, professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College, based at Hammersmith hospital, calls their revolutionary new model "ethical pharmaceuticals". Improvements they devise to the molecular structure of an existing, expensive drug turn it technically into a new medicine which is no longer under a 20-year patent to a multinational drug company and can be made and sold cheaply.
Go science! Poor countries will get the benefit, followed by the NHS... but expect a mighty rumbling from the big companies who are going to find themselves undercut.
Professor Shaunak and his colleague from the London School of Pharmacy, Steve Brocchini, have linked up with an Indian biotech company which will manufacture the first drug - for hepatitis C - if clinical trials in India, sponsored by the Indian government, are successful. Hepatitis C affects 170 million people worldwide and at least 200,000 in the UK. Multinational drug companies put the cost of the research and development of a new drug at $800m (£408m). Professors Shaunak and Brocchini say the cost of theirs will be only a few million pounds.