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Trends in patents and innovation against cancer

By Andrew Carridge, Partner and Felix Hannam, Assistant at renowned intellectual property law firm, Reddie & Grose

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With an estimated 19.3 million new cancer cases and almost 10.0 million cancer deaths in 2020, cancer is a major global health threat”.

This, quoted in the European Patent Office (EPO) “Patents and innovation against cancer” report of February 2024, highlights the scale of the challenge to researchers in the fight against this devastating disease.

Reassuringly, the advances in cancer treatment and tools for cancer diagnosis, particularly over the last 50 years, have led to a significant reduction in deaths.

For example, the EPO report indicates that advancements in cancer diagnostic and treatment technologies have played a pivotal role in reducing cancer mortality rates, contributing to a 12 per cent reduction in cancer-related deaths, or over 5000000 lives saved in the EU, between 1988 and 2022.

This article summarises current trends in innovation and patents in the cancer field, with reference to the EPO’s study.

Overview of patenting trends:

The EPO’s report notes the rise in cancer-related innovation during the last half a century, with over 13,000 cancer-related International Patent Families (IPFs) being filed in 2021.

This accounted for 3 per cent of the world’s patenting activity for the year.

In the 1970s and 1980s the main advances were made in chemotherapy with antimetabolite drugs, alkylating agents and hormonal therapies, with the main targets comprising haematological and solid tumours.

There were also improvements in imaging technologies like x-ray and ultrasound as well as contrast agents which improved the ability of health care professionals to differentiate effectively between cancerous and non-cancerous tissue.

In the 1990s there was rapid development in cancer treatment methods such as targeted therapies and immunotherapy, whilst a landmark discovery was made when the association was made between the BRCA1 gene mutation and a family history of breast cancer allowing preventative measures to be pursued such as tamoxifen therapy.

At the turn of the century and the early 2000s, the areas of gene therapy and coding nucleic acids grew considerably, whilst contrastingly the interest in classical chemotherapy and hormonal therapy began to recede.

Cancer models such as organoids and cancer diagnostic technologies like imaging, biopsies and the concept of personalised medicine also experienced consistent growth.

Since 2015 there has been a revitalised expansion across almost all fields of cancer technology seemingly driven by new and developing therapies.

This includes further work on targeted therapy and immunotherapy, as well as gene therapy and non-coding nucleic acids.

The area of research relating to liquid tumour biopsies has also shown notable growth.

Breakdown of the general patenting trends/trends in IPFs

The EPO’s data, indicates the number of IPFs filed in the different cancer related technologies, with cancer treatment dominating throughout the data collection period.

Which countries are involved in cancer-related innovation?

The data in the graph below depicts the trends in IPFs filed in cancer-related technologies based on country of origin.

As might be expected, the US is responsible for most filings by quite some margin.

Since 2015, China has experienced rapid growth such that by 2021, they became the world’s second-largest contributor to cancer innovation overtaking the EU27 for the first time.

Who is involved in cancer-related innovation?

In the 2000s there were notable differences between the number of IPFs filed by companies and universities, hospitals or public research organisations (PRO).

In 2007, companies filed over four times more IPFs in the field of cancer treatment than universities, hospitals or PROs and over 3 and a half times more IPFs in cancer diagnostics.

However, more recently, the disparity in filings between the companies and the universities, hospitals and PROs has reduced.

As the EPO notes, this could be due to a wider trend in the pharmaceutical industry, where pharmaceutical companies are relying on external sources for their innovation pipeline.

So, universities or PROs may invent new drugs, before engaging with pharmaceutical companies at a later stage through acquisitions, in-licensing, or collaborations.

Indeed, as indicated in Schumacher et al (2023) only 28 per cent of drugs recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were invented and developed internally by the large integrated pharmaceutical companies.

The EPO has also recently launched a new resource platform: “Technologies combatting cancer” platform, which is designed to provide scientists and innovators with easy access to patent information.

At Reddie & Grose we have a number of attorneys with wealth of experience in the field of cancer related technologies.

If you need help protecting your innovations in this field then, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

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