The Problematical Dr. Huang Hongyun


Loophole boosts biotech profits


By Paul Jacobs

The death of the key patent covering the drug Epogen came Oct. 27, exactly 17 years after it was issued.

Many expected the patent's demise to usher in a new era of cheap generic versions of the miracle drug, which boosts the body's production of red blood cells and is far and away the most lucrative biotech product ever.

The copycat drugs would bring relief to the U.S. consumers and taxpayers who shelled out $6 billion last year for Epogen and its chemical twin, Procrit.

But today, as consumers and government officials fret about rising health care costs and drug prices, there are no cheap, generic versions of Epogen -- or, for that matter, any other biotech drug.

Why? Blame a patent system all too easily manipulated by companies eager to extend their lock on billion-dollar drugs.

Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, isn't the only company to use the patent system to extend a lucrative drug monopoly. Several other companies making blockbuster biotech drugs, including Biogen Idec and Genzyme, also took advantage of loopholes in the old U.S. patent law to get multiple patents on a single drug, adding years of life to their government-sanctioned monopolies.

But the case of Epogen, the bestselling product from the biggest biotech company in the world, is the most telling example of how the patent system can benefit the industry at the expense of consumers. In Epogen's case, Amgen won as many as 12 extra years of protection beyond that first patent, which will keep the price high until 2016.

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