A Lesson in Patent Law

The NYTimes has an article today about a group that takes “high tech” biotech and figures out how to deploy it in “low tech” ways — How the Simple Side of High-Tech Makes the Developing World Better [pdf]. It’s a fascinating interview, and it includes this snippet:

Q. Aren’t you violating intellectual property laws when you use homemade substitutes for patented technologies?

A. Not as long as you are not selling it. You can certainly do it for research purposes or as a public service. And in a lot of countries, a lot of this isn’t patented anyway. It is patented in the United States, and that’s one reason it’s harder to do this sort of work within the country.

There’s a chemical solution called phosphorous buffered saline, P.B.S., used for preparing biological specimens like blood or urine for laboratory examination. The manufacturer calls it Solution A and charges something like $20 for it.

Well, if you know the principle, you can make the same thing for roughly 20 cents, which is what we’ve taught a lot of public health workers throughout Latin America to do. This is true of a lot of other laboratory supplies, too. But you know, I’ve given talks at hospitals in the U.S., and had someone ask, “How can I do this?” and I have to say: “You can’t. It’s proprietary here.”

Q. Within science nowadays, there’s a trend where researchers own a piece of their discoveries and set up companies to market them. Could you ever see yourself doing that?

A. No. With my own lab research, which is partly on how the dengue fever virus replicates itself, I wouldn’t want to own it. I don’t think my research should be about my ego or financial success. From what I’ve seen this trend toward ownership makes the new discoveries inaccessible to most of the world because it contributes to raising their costs

[…]Q. You studied biology. Given your political bent, why didn’t you pursue social sciences or the law?

A. I love biology, find great beauty in the way cells work. There’s something almost utopian about a cell because everything in the cell really fits together beautifully and is working for the benefit of the whole.

Moreover, biology is one of my ways of being political. If we get somewhere — and I think we will — with the dengue fever research, it will save thousands of lives. And when I do technology transfer, it involves a lot of empowerment, as well.

Teaching people from the developing world how to solve their own problems and how to access the knowledge of the developed world and claim it as their own is a very exciting process.beyond what most people can afford.