US Students Urge UCLA to Drop Proxy Patent Battle for Cancer Drug in India

The university has been pursuing the battle on behalf of Pfizer and has “rejected or ignored” requests from civil society to drop the patent.

New Delhi: In India, a month’s supply of Pfizer’s prostate cancer drug Xtandi costs about Rs 2.7 lakh ($4,172). In the US, however, it sells for about Rs 6.9 lakh ($10,772). The drug was developed at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

This was done with US taxpayer money, but since then the university has licensed the drug out to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its partners Medivation and Astellas. UCLA has even sold the royalty rights to a company called Royalty Pharma.

In spite of this, it has been pursuing a “proxy” patent battle for the drug in the Delhi high court.

The Wire had reported on this proxy battle last October and on how UCLA’s petition presents the university as the only major stakeholder and aggrieved party, when, in fact, it is these pharmaceutical companies who stand to gain from a patent in India.

The drug’s development was funded by the US’s National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense.

Now, one of the largest student health networks in the US has started a petition to get the board of regents at UCLA to pay attention to repeated civil society demands that it drop their “proxy” patent battle for Xtandi in India.

“UCLA, which has developed this drug with public funding and licensed the drug without protections to ensure affordable pricing, is now acting on the behest of the pharmaceutical corporations it has sold the drug to, rather than patients,” says the petition by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM).

UAEM has done this “Due to the continued lack of action being taken by the Board of Regents.” They say that UCLA should be fighting “on behalf of the patients that cannot afford these taxpayer-funded drugs, rather than fight a legal battle on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Students say they will escalate their pressure on UCLA

UAEM’s petition follows two representations made at meetings of the board of regents, where students publicly urged them to drop their pursuit of the patent in India.

This month, Kayla Gu, a medical student at UCLA, addressed the board on behalf of UAEM and other organisations: “At our student-run homeless clinic, we work in underserved communities to deliver medical services to those who can’t afford healthcare, all the while the prices for essential drugs rapidly rise and our patients are being gouged by these high price tags. Xtandi is one such drug, priced at $129,000, that has become out of reach for patients here and abroad,” she said.

Merith Basey, executive director for UAEM in North America, says: “we will continue to escalate our campaign and increase pressure on UCLA both on campus and through the media. This is just the beginning.” She says UCLA’s decisions have enabled pharmaceutical giants to profit from cancer patients in the US but also has prevented access to this drug for patients around the world.

India is the world leader in the production of generic drugs. Generic drugs are copies of patented drugs but are cheaper. A patent will hamper the generic production of this drug. If India can’t produce generics, patients everywhere stand to lose, including patients in the US who have paid for the research of this drug.

Basey calls this the “pharmatisation” of universities and says that “it is not a favourable look for UCLA” to be pursuing this patent in India.

In September 2017, a US Navy veteran, Emily Leonard, also made a public representation to the board on behalf of UAEM. She presented a letter signed by 56 organisations asking UCLA to “to drop patent rights to the life-saving prostate cancer drug Xtandi so that it could be generically produced because it is too expensive for patients.” This is recorded on the website of UCLA’s board.

UCLA has ‘formally rejected or ignored’ petitions on Xtandi patent

Despite repeated attempts to reach UCLA’s board of regents by organisations like Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, Knowledge Ecology International and Union for Affordable Cancer Treatment, the board has largely ignored them. UAEM’s press releases say that previous requests to the board to drop this patent have been “formally rejected or ignored.”

UCLA also ignored The Wire’s detailed questionnaire sent last October and sent only a brief and general statement in reply. Sherry Lansing, a bigwig in Hollywood, is on UCLA’s health services committee and on the board of a number of organisations working on cancer, including her own foundation. Her various offices have also ignored The Wire’s emails with queries.

The various committees of UCLA’s board meet regularly, with prepared agendas. Minutes of these meetings are also published, along with videos. The Wire checked the minutes of UCLA’s health services committee from September 2017October 2017December 2017 and February 2018 but the issue of the patent on Xtandi has never made it to the board’s agenda.

UCLA sent one reply in September 2017 to civil society organisations who have been petitioning them on this. Their reply seemed to implicate UCLA deeper in the proxy patent battle rather than justify it. The letter came from the CEO of UCLA Health System, John Mazziotta. While UCLA’s lawyers in India chose to omit any reference to commercial interests like Pfizer, in their patent application, Mazziotta admits that their legal battle in India is “filed and is being controlled and managed by and at the request of Medivation and its commercial partner Astellas.” Pfizer acquired Medivation in 2016.

Mazziotta’s letter also refers to UCLA’s Licensing Guidelines. These guidelines, in fact, advise the university to pursue patents only in developed countries who can afford the prices of patented drugs. The guidelines tell the university to have “humanitarian patenting and licensing strategies” and specifically also says that “alternate licensing” should be pursued in the developing world so that generic companies can manufacture these drugs there.