A Better World?

Last November, the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) released its 2011 Better World Report (2011 Report); the most recent of a series started in 2006.  AUTM is a membership organization composed of anyone in the technology transfer business, that is, employed by the many grant-funded research institutions (like universities, academic medical centers, government labs) which, thanks to the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act (AUTM Bayh-Dole), own the intellectual property created in the course of US Government-funded research, and who are responsible for the first step in turning lab results into something practical and useful.  Back in the 1990s, I was a tech transfer professional, an AUTM member, and editor of newsletter, and think highly of many of my former colleagues.  But, as I have written and said previously (e.g., “An Academic Approach to Global Health,” 11/12/09), I am disappointed at the failure of technology transfer offices (TTOs), especially institutions with large inputs of federal biomedical funding, to think and act creatively and responsibly to transfer technology to organizations (non-, not-for, low-, or for-profit) that are developing products for rest-of-world (ROW), global health problems.

So it was with interest that I read the latest Better World Report with its stated aim of showing “how academic research and technology transfer have changed people’s way of life and made the world a better place” and specifically the section on “Technologies to Improve Health” (there are also sections on technologies to restore the earth, enhance food sources, further the green movement, and replenish water supplies).  Given the Report’s emphasis on The World and the section’s lead photo of a mother and child not likely taken at the local mall, I expected to learn about products that were making the lives of the people, especially those not lucky to be US citizens, better.  Nine technologies were profiled:

  • Device for knee-pain sufferers from the École de technologie supérieure (Montreal)- not relevant to ROW health;
  • Insect catcher for researchers from Emory University- not relevant to ROW health (intended for use in research not public health);
  • DNA microarray from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory- products made by licensee, Second Genome (Second Genome), are used primarily in academic research, so not relevant to ROW health;
  • Device for a chronic bladder condition from Massachusetts Institute of Technology- not relevant to ROW health;
  • Diagnostic for brain injuries from University of Florida- not relevant to ROW health;
  • Topical wound cleaning solutions from University of Georgia- products are made by licensee, Molecular Therapeutics LLC (Molec Pharma), and may be relevant to ROW health, if low-priced and distributed outside of US (current distribution is apparently through nine independent agents);
  • New drugs for malaria from University of Nebraska Medical Center-  a lead drug candidate is in late stage human trials by the licensee, Ranbaxy, the Indian generic drug maker (and since 2008 a division of the Japanese pharma company, Daiichi Sankyo Co. Ltd.), and may have a significant impact on ROW health (a great story that I wrote about in my post, A Long Strange Trip, 11/18/11);
  • Diagnostic test for Cryptococcus Neo-formans infection (an opportunistic fungal infection of immuno-compromised individuals) from University of Nevada- a prototype test developed by the licensee, Immuno-Mycologics Inc. (IMMY), is used or under evaluation in the US, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, and Mozambique and is likely to have a significant impact on ROW health;
  • Microchip diagnostic for HIV monitoring from University of Toronto-  a portable cytometer is under development by the licensee, ChipCare Corp. (U of T News) so while relevant to ROW, it will have competition especially if priced at $5-10,000 per reader as indicated (e.g., Daktari Diagnostics has said its reader will be $500, Daktari).

My grade:  C-.  Of the nine profiled technologies, only one (the Cryptococcus diagnostic) is in use to improve ROW health and three others may result in products which will improve ROW health.  With a good portion of the NIH’s 2012 $30 billion budget going to these institutions (note two of the profiled institutions are Canadian), there is room, and money, for improvement.  TTOs should be more active, first, in identifying, designing development plans for, and subsidizing the technologies that may result in ROW health products, and, second, in finding and motivating entrepreneurs, start-up and established companies, and non-profits like the product development organizations to license the technologies and develop products.  To lower barriers and costs, I recommend that the TTOs:

  • rather than granting exclusive world-wide licenses, license non- or semi-exclusively by indication, geography, price, or national origin of the proposed licensee;
  • grant multiple time-limited, no-cost options to interested parties to generate competition and proof-of-concept data;
  • seek out entrepreneurs interested in creating no/low-profit ventures (tap alums if needed) as opposed to chasing venture capital firms (who aren’t interested in global health markets anyway);
  • pool patents with other institutions to create patent packages needed for product development and make them easily accessed through standardized licenses;
  • stop patenting methods for drug and vaccine discovery or at least stop licensing them exclusively;
  • provide internal funding for proof-of-concept research on global health-relevant technology (some universities already have technology development funds to add value to early-stage research);
  • review all existing licenses for global-health-relevant applications and try to force renegotiation that requires licensees to develop ROW products;
  • know that, in addition to the “neglected diseases,” chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer are major contributors to mortality in low-income countries and therefore negotiate licenses for technologies for these indications that favor ROW products; and
  • dissuade their administrations from measuring TTO performance solely on revenue and persuade them that licensing for social good is a duty of a publicly-funded university.

Some of the members of AUTM are aware that more needs to done and the organization has a Global Health Initiative (AUTM GHI).  Unfortunately, the momentum of the initiative’s launch in 2009 seems to have faded.  The number of institutions endorsing the Initiative’s Statement of Principles and Strategies for the Equitable Dissemination of Medical Technologies has dropped from 13 per year to zero (Principles Endorsement), and at the upcoming annual meeting only one of 70 sessions is related to global health (Meeting Program).  I note though the plenary presenter will be Christie Hefner (“the chief steward of the iconic Playboy brand”) who will talk about “how to expand and extend a brand in the virtual world including providing tips for defending against global counterfeiters, choosing trustworthy licensing partners and more.”  While the Better World report is a good way for AUTM to document the pubic benefits of federally-funded research, AUTM should also be honest in assessing those benefits, how they were achieved, and figure out how to technology transfer successfully.  A better world?  How about a better way?

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