New Delhi

India's supreme court rules for cheaper cancer drugs

Novartis losses six-year legal battle

India's supreme court rules for cheaper cancer drugs

(By Sandra Cordon) New Delhi, April 1 - India's Supreme Court rejected a bid from Swiss pharmaceuticals group Novartis to patent a cancer drug in a ruling Monday that critics say will help generic companies to make important medicines cheaper. Novartis was attempting to patent Glivec, a treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia. Instead, India's generic drug industry will be permitted to continue producing less expensive versions of the drug. The company complained that the court ruling "discourages the search for innovative medicines, essential for the advancement of medical science in the service of patients". It added that the ruling is a "setback" for patients because it could keep big drug companies from researching new options to treat disease. However, health advocates say the ruling will actually make it easier for generic companies to produce alternatives to the expensive Swiss drug now used by 16, 000 cancer patients in India. A month's supply of Novartis' Glivec costs approximately $1,900, compared to generic versions by Indian pharmaceutical producers that run around $175. India's 2005 patent law sets a high threshold for granting the patents, especially for updated versions of existing drugs. The Indian law states that if a drug company wants to patent a modified version of an existing patented drug, it must show the new drug is more effective. The Glivec case is part of a worldwide trend that has seen governments in numerous emerging countries struggle to make low-cost pharmaceuticals available to their citizens. For example, in 2011 Brazil began distributing in so-called "popular pharmacies" certain medicines for diabetes and hypertension. The pharmacies are owned and operated by the state and, according to the national health department, have cut as much as 90% off the price of some medications. Many pharmaceutical companies have also seen their patent protections expire in several countries in recent years, opening up more markets to generic competitors. That has driven many brand-name companies to push harder for expansion in growing economies such as India and China. Some experts and economists say that emerging markets are becoming especially important to pharmaceutical companies because their populations are continuing to boom. In contrast, the markets are not only saturated in Europe and North America, but population growth is much smaller there. The populations may be ageing and require more drugs, but that isn't enough to keep pharmaceutical companies growing, experts say.

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