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Thursday, 23 September 2010
Pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of their time, and ill people's money, patenting medicines. They then have a legal monopoly on those medicines, which allows them to charge a great deal for them. For example the anti-cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) costs about €30,000 per year for one breast cancer patient.
Trastuzumab is a monoclonal antibody, so it is not as easy to make as making carbon dioxide by adding sulphuric acid to chalk, but it isn't that hard either. You fuse cancer cells and spleen cells in a mouse that has been injected with whatever substance that you want the monoclonal antibodies to bind to. In the case of trastuzumab, that's human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which is a protein that makes breast cancers grow. (In that particular case, you also can't use ordinary mouse cells as people react to mouse proteins, you have to use cells that make the human version.) Finally, you clone the cells to increase their number then use them to make the antibody.
These days all this sort of messing about is done by robots with pipettes, not by the pharmaceutical company employee above with the conical flask.
How much would such a robot cost? I build robots all the time, and I estimate that such a robot might - if mass produced - cost a couple of thousand Euros at most.
Here patent law (in Europe, not America) gets interesting: any private individual can make any patented object for their own use without infringing the patent. They can't sell it, but they can, for example, eat it or inject it.
This means that national health services could loan patients a drug-synthesizing robot that cost less than a few-months supply of some drugs. The patients could make their own drugs and thereby treat their disease with the latest medicines.
The health services would save a fortune.