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Can You Create A Patent-Free Cancer Drug?

An enterprising chemist is trying to start an open-source approach to cancer research.

Can You Create A Patent-Free Cancer Drug?
[Top photo: AkeSak via Shutterstock]

What do you do if you have a promising anti-cancer drug, but no patent and no funding to develop it? If you’re Isaac Yonemoto, an enterprising chemist from San Diego, you look to methods that haven’t been explored much in the pharmaceutical industry, like open-sourcing and crowdfunding.

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Yonemoto started working on the drug candidate “9DS” when he was hired as a post-doc to work with Barbara Gerratana at the University of Maryland, College Park. Gerratana had identified 9DS after reactivating the work of Russian scientists in the 1970s. They had discovered a compound that looked promising for several cancers, but had shelved the work when it was found to have nasty side effects. Gerratana adapted the research, creating a new compound that still worked well, but didn’t come with the same dangers.

Unfortunately however Gerratana left for a job at NIH, effectively stopping the project in its tracks. Not only could she no longer work on the research, she also couldn’t be seen to fund something that she’s had a hand in. NIH has strict conflict-of-interest rules.

That’s when Yonemoto started exploring the idea of crowdfunding the next stage of experiments. You can see his pitch here, hosted on his own Indysci.org platform:

Yonemoto is looking for $50,000 to fund an experiment to see if the drug will cure cancer in mice. If it can, it could help him get more funding to complete pre-clinical trials. “My hope is that it would attract enough attention that there would be a desire for a patent-free drug to be made, and as a result, that would attract more institutional nonprofit involvement,” he says.

At the same time, he also plans to publish all the data from the project online, so that other researchers can do their own work on it. Yonemoto sees no reason why drugs shouldn’t be developed more like, say, Linux software, where thousands of coders chip in their own tweaks.

“I consider this a social experiment,” he says. “I’m really excited to find out the answer to the question ‘Can you make a drug without patents?’ I wholeheartedly believe the answer is yes.”

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There are strong reasons to doubt the logic. Drugs cost a minimum of about $250 million to bring to market, and the pharmaceutical industry argues that patents are essential for guaranteeing return-on-investment. But the idea isn’t without precedent. Jonas Salk famously developed a polio vaccine in the 1950s without a patent–though that was an extraordinary act of generosity. It’s estimated that a patent could have earned $7 billion by now.

Take a look at Yonemoto’s campaign page here. The project is named after a good friend, Marilyn Rudensky, who died of breast cancer in 2010. Yonemoto calls her memory a “constant source of inspiration” as he takes on the dual challenge of coming up with a new cancer drug and developing a new way to fund it.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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