Professors Erika Lietzan and Kristina Acri on “Distorted Drug Patents”

The following post comes from Austin Shaffer, a 2L at Scalia Law and a Research Assistant at CPIP.

By Austin Shaffer

In their new paper, Distorted Drug Patents, CPIP Senior Scholar Erika Lietzan of Mizzou Law and Kristina Acri of Colorado College explore a paradox in our patent system: Innovators are less motivated to work on drugs that take more time to develop as drug research incentives are being skewed away from the harder problems (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease and interventions at the early stages of cancer). The paper, which was published in the Washington Law Review in late 2020, was supported in part by a CPIP Leonardo da Vinci Fellowship Research Grant.

Although many condemn later-issued drug patents as “insidious,” Profs. Lietzan and Acri argue that those conceptions should be recalibrated, since the use of such patents is fully consistent with the intent of Congress when the Patent Act was amended in 1984 to restore some of the patent term lost to premarket R&D and FDA review. While a few scholars have considered the implications of patent term restoration from an empirical perspective, none have done so to the same extent as Profs. Lietzan and Acri. By using an expansive dataset and including a temporal dimension in the analysis, the scholars offer a fresh assessment of patent restoration and its implications.

How Can Drug Patents be “Distorted”?

Drug research is notoriously risky—investors allocate massive amounts of time and money to a project without knowing whether the drug will succeed in trials or how long the trials could last. Even if trials are successful, the Public Health Service Act and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act require premarket approval of new drugs before they can be commercialized. Starting in the 1960s, federal regulatory requirements grew more demanding, and the FDA’s expectations became more rigorous to obtain premarket approval. Given that the FDA approves only finished products, not mere active moieties, drug research is not only expensive but also uncertain. While this process drags out, the clock on the patent continues to run. By the time all is said and done, the effective life of the patent is distorted, an unfortunate reality that further disincentivizes complex drug research. By the 1980s, Congress had addressed this problem by amending the Patent Act to allow entities to apply for patent term restoration.

35 U.S.C. § 156 authorizes the PTO to restore the life of a patent lost to clinical trials and FDA review. However, the PTO has restricted the practicality of these restorations, making them subject to stringent limitations. It restores only half of the testing period after patent issuance and caps restoration at five years, and the effective patent life post-restoration cannot exceed fourteen years. Additionally, the PTO must deny restoration if the FDA has already approved the active ingredient. Only one patent can be extended per regulatory review period, and patents can only be extended under Section 156 once. After a certain point, premarket R&D simply and unavoidably equates to lost patent life. But despite the limitations and restraints on this process, it is widely agreed that the 1984 amendment was a step in the right direction.

The value of patent restoration was complicated, however, by the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which revised Section 154 of the Patent Act and altered the length of patent terms. To say the least, the relationship between the URAA extension and patent term restoration was initially muddled, particularly in the context of parent/child applications. Ultimately, it played out that drugs approved since the enactment of Section 156 have been protected by patents subject to three different regimes: (1) the pre-URAA regime, in which patents lasted for seventeen years from issuance; (2) the post-URAA regime, in which patents lasted for twenty years from application or parent application; and (3) the transition regime, in which patents lasted for twenty years post-application or seventeen years post-issuance, whichever came first.

Profs. Lietzan and Acri were motivated to delve deeper into the data behind patent restorations, operating under the hypotheses that longer R&D programs should distort drug patents (even after term restoration), and that restoring a child patent should be associated with longer final effective life if the patent is subject to the seventeen-year term (pre-URAA regime).

Testing the Hypotheses

Profs. Lietzan and Acri generated an unprecedented dataset containing information on 642 approved drugs for which part of the patent life was restored—every instance between the enactment of Section 156 and April 1, 2017. Regulatory information—such as the start of clinical trials, FDA approval date, the length of testing, and the length of the FDA review period—was collected for each drug. On the patent side, the dataset included, among other data points, the following information: (1) the date on which the inventor filed the patent application that led to issuance of the patent; (2) the date that would control calculation of a twenty-year patent term under current law; (3) the date on which the patent issued (or the date on which the original patent issued, in the case of a reissued patent); (4) the type of term the patent enjoyed (seventeen-year, twenty-year, or transitional); (5) the number of days restored by the PTO; and (6) the final patent expiry date after restoration.

The data analysis produced some interesting findings. The average effective patent life without restoration—meaning the time from FDA approval to the original expiration date of the patent—was 8.71 years (median 9.49 years). And while the average clinical development program was 6.04 years, the average amount of patent life restored was only 2.87 years. Seeking to dig deeper into the findings, Profs. Lietzan and Acri performed various regression analyses to assess which variables explain effective patent life before the award of patent term restoration. Thought-provoking graphs and tables are included in the Appendix of the paper for those interested in the data science aspect of the research.

Policy Implications

As expected, Profs. Lietzan and Acri found that our legal system not only distorts drug patents but also provides less effective patent life for drugs that take longer to develop. The current scheme further disincentivizes investors and inventors from undertaking critical drug research because of the associated costs and risks of doing so. By the time our government allows the patent owner to commercialize, much of the patent term has already lapsed. And while the 1984 amendment made positive progress to combat this issue by authorizing patent restoration, that power has not been used to its fullest extent. This means that cures and treatments for a wide range of diseases and illnesses are largely under-researched and under-developed.

To add to the quandary, the changes made in 1994 by the URAA mean that a drug company may need to select a later-issued original patent to achieve fourteen full years of effective patent life. These patents are arguably less valuable to the drug’s inventor because it may be possible for generic and biosimilar applicants to develop versions that satisfy regulatory requirements and yet do not infringe the patent. Policymakers have essentially nullified the original purpose of the 1984 amendment to the Patent Act without meaningful discussion of the implications for drug innovation.

In a society begging for more involved research into complex diseases that affect millions of people, such as Alzheimer’s and various cancers, the current setup of our patent system operates as a hindrance and a deterrent against innovation. The argument can be made that drugs requiring more premarket research and investment should receive longer effective patent lives, but at the very least, they should not receive less because of a burdensome regulatory scheme.

Patent life is essential to innovation in the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps more so than any other industry, and Congress recognized that notion by adopting Section 156 to the Patent Act. The fact that the PTO uses its promulgated authority so selectively, combined with further complications stemming from Congress’s changes to the way patent terms are calculated in 1994, leaves drug companies in a predicament. While some policymakers and scholars complain when those companies secure later-expiring patents, the extensive research and analysis by Profs. Lietzan and Acri suggest that those patents may be necessary to accomplish the intentions of the Congress with the 1984 amendment.