The Drug Innovation Paradox: Matching Incentives to Market Realities

The hardest things are often the most important things. That’s one of the implicit justifications for the intellectual property system. If we want people to do the hard and important work of researching, developing, and commercializing game-changing innovations, then we need to secure the fruits of their labor with property rights.

In her forthcoming paper, The Drug Innovation Paradox,[1] Professor Erika Lietzan of the University of Missouri School of Law gives reason to question whether our IP and regulatory system is properly encouraging pharmaceutical innovators to work on the most important, and hardest, questions.

This paper, produced while Prof. Lietzan was a CPIP Edison Innovation Fellow, considers a paradox. Some of the biggest health challenges, the most important things, are indeed the hardest things. Therapies for diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s demand research, development, and testing that takes longer. Unfortunately, the longer something takes to develop, the shorter the term of exclusivity under the IP system, and thus the less secure the investment.

The drug innovation paradox is that the hardest and most important cures are often the ones most poorly supported by our IP system.

Combining several different data sources for the first time, Prof. Lietzan presents comprehensive statistical findings that bring the extent of the drug innovation paradox into focus. The implications for innovation policy are profound, especially if we wish to see groundbreaking new therapies that are inherently more difficult to develop.

Incentives are particularly important in the pharmaceutical industry, where the average cost of developing an approved new medicine is over two billion dollars.[2] Drugmakers would hardly invest so much without the promise of exclusivity once the medicine goes to market. However, the period of exclusivity—the incentive—we give to drugmakers depends upon how long it takes them to bring a new medicine to the market. The more time they spend on developing a new medicine, the less reward they receive for their troubles by way of a shorter patent term.

In the United States, it takes 3.5 years on average for a patent to issue, and in many industries, patent owners thus might expect to enjoy around 16.5 years of clear market exclusivity.[3] However, things are very different in the pharmaceutical industry, where the safety and efficacy of a new drug has to be proven before it can be marketed. Years of preclinical testing and clinical trials run down the patent term clock while a drugmaker awaits approval. Congress has instituted measures to restore a portion of the time lost, but the fact remains that longer development programs result in shorter periods of exclusivity.

Pouring over the data going back to 1984, Prof. Lietzan examines the variables that play a role in perpetuating the drug innovation paradox. Critically, she notes that many of the factors that consistently lead to longer development programs—including the drug, disease, and endpoints to be met—are simply beyond a drugmaker’s control. Of course, it is impossible to say for certain what drugs were never invented because the incentives were not there. But the data does give us an accurate sense of how many years spent in development are lost when the patent expires.

For example, Prof Lietzan breaks down the data with respect to the category of therapy being developed. As the following figure shows, the average length of the clinical testing period for some therapeutic categories ranges from about 3 to 9 years:

It is important to note that this lengthy testing period represents only one part of a development program, and the preclinical testing period has to be taken into account as well. Prof. Lietzan estimates that the average preclinical testing period for new drugs is 5.61 years. It is easy to see how the majority of the patent term for drugs that fall into certain therapeutic categories may be gone before the drug even enters the market.

The danger of the drug innovation paradox is that we may be under-incentivizing pharmaceutical research and development for drugs that are inherently more difficult to develop. The next great breakthrough treatment for difficult-to-treat diseases like cancer or multiple sclerosis may never be developed unless the incentives are there to reward drugmakers for taking the risk to develop the treatments in the first place. The data collected by Prof. Lietzan shows us just how time-consuming these endeavors can be, and they suggest that we should break the paradox if we hope to have even greater drug innovation.

CPIP is pleased to once again have Prof. Lietzan as a CPIP Edison Innovation Fellow for 2017 – 2018. We look forward to supporting more of her groundbreaking work on this difficult, but absolutely important, issue.


[1] Erika F. Lietzan, The Drug Innovation Paradox, 83 Mo. L. Rev. ___ (2018), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract_id=2948604.

[2] See Joseph A. DiMasi et al., Innovation in the Pharmaceutical Industry: New Estimates of R&D Costs, 47 J. Health Econ. 20 (2016) (estimating average total pre-approval cost of approved new compound at $2.558 billion in 2013 dollars), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26928437.

[3] See Mark Schultz & Kevin Madigan, The Long Wait for Innovation: The Global Patent Pendency Problem (Ctr. for the Prot. of Intell. Prop. Oct. 2016), available at https://sls.gmu.edu/cpip/wp-content/uploads/sites/31/2016/10/Schultz-Madigan-The-Long-Wait-for-Innovation-The-Global-Patent-Pendency-Problem.pdf.

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