North American Universities Seen Failing To Promote Socially Responsible Licensing

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A student group is holding top research universities in the US and Canada accountable for how much they are – or are not – contributing to global public health. According to a recently released report by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a non-profit organisation, most institutions are falling short when it comes to investing in neglected diseases and promoting access to medicines.

For the first time, top North American research universities have been graded for their performance in driving medical research for the world’s poorest populations and ensuring that licensing agreements are socially responsible. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) led the “report card” initiative, which was launched on 4 April.

From Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to the University of Alberta, the 54 research universities that were evaluated by the UAEM performed poorly across categories including innovation, access, and empowerment. In terms of investing in neglected disease research, on average, less than three per cent of research funding in 2010 went toward research in neglected diseases such as Chagas disease, sleeping sickness, or paediatric formulations of HIV/AIDS medicines.

Unni Karunakara, international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), said during a press conference call that universities and academic institutions “play a huge role” when it comes to developing medicines for the one billion people who suffer from neglected diseases worldwide.

“This is where much of the research is being carried out today, where much of the medical innovation happens,” Karunakara said.

According to UAEM, at least 25 per cent of new medicines originate in academic labs, many of which receive public funding. Therefore, according to the US-based organisation, how these resources are contributing to global public health should be closely watched.

Another area where North American research universities performed particularly poorly is in ensuring access to medicine through socially responsible licensing practices. According to the report, inclusion of accessible licensing provisions in exclusive licences was “disappointingly rare” and included on average only 11 per cent of the time.

The commercial licensing of university medical-research to pharmaceutical companies and biotechs is common and necessary for the production of medicines, but agreements are often not favourable to patients in developing countries. As a timely example, Karunakara pointed to India’s recent denial of a patent on the cancer-drug Geevec, which is manufactured by Novartis. (IPW, IP Law, 1 April 2013)

“Much of the research was conducted in universities, but of course that drug was priced out of the market for people who really needed that drug,” Karunakara said.

UAEM researchers also found that it was difficult to glean information on university licensing practices. According to the report findings: “the number of universities willing to self-report data on patenting and licensing metrics was significantly lower than for the innovation and empowerment sections.”

Bryan Collinsworth, executive director of UAEM, told Intellectual Property Watch that overall university technology transfer offices were “hesitant to be transparent about their licensing practices.”

“Now, to some extent, that’s understandable because these are agreements with companies, and universities are competing to get the best licensing deals. At the same time, as we really highlight in this report card, much of this is licensing of research that was funded with public and taxpayer dollars. And these are universities that are framing this research as being conducted for the benefit of the global good. So, that suggests to us that there should be a higher level of transparency in how universities are doing their licensing and particularly whether they are including access provisions,” Collinsworth said.

That said, although universities scored poorly overall on the licensing metric, some universities excelled in this category. For example, the University of British Columbia, which had the best overall ranking, got an ‘A’ for access as it regularly includes access terms in exclusive licences.

Collinsworth explained that when it comes to managing intellectual property rights in a socially responsible manner, “universities making commitments in this area tend to have slightly better performance on those metrics. So, public commitment does matter.”

He hopes that by putting the spotlight on these practices, more universities will become inclined to “step it up” if they are serious about global public health.


Rachel Marusak Hermann may be reached at

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