AI System that Develops Drugs Developed

In a more sensible world, many more resources would be immediately put into this development to (benevolently) accelerate research into medicine. We would have more money for that if we didn’t allow pharmaceutical companies to charge ridiculous prices and then spend woefully inadequate amounts of their revenue on actual research.

An artificial-intelligence approach created at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy can teach itself to design new drug molecules from scratch and has the potential to dramatically accelerate the design of new drug candidates.

The system is called Reinforcement Learning for Structural Evolution, known as ReLeaSE, and is an algorithm and computer program that comprises two neural networks which can be thought of as a teacher and a student. The teacher knows the syntax and linguistic rules behind the vocabulary of chemical structures for about 1.7 million known biologically active molecules. By working with the teacher, the student learns over time and becomes better at proposing molecules that are likely to be useful as new medicines.

Alexander Tropsha, Olexandr Isayev and Mariya Popova, all of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, are the creators of ReLeaSE. The University has applied for a patent for the technology, and the team published a proof-of-concept study in the journal Science Advances last week.

“If we compare this process to learning a language, then after the student learns the molecular alphabet and the rules of the language, they can create new ‘words,’ or molecules,” said Tropsha. “If the new molecule is realistic and has the desired effect, the teacher approves. If not, the teacher disapproves, forcing the student to avoid bad molecules and create good ones.”

ReLeaSE is a powerful innovation to virtual screening, the computational method widely used by the pharmaceutical industry to identify viable drug candidates. Virtual screening allows scientists to evaluate existing large chemical libraries, but the method only works for known chemicals. ReLeASE has the unique ability to create and evaluate new molecules.

“A scientist using virtual screening is like a customer ordering in a restaurant. What can be ordered is usually limited by the menu,” said Isayev. “We want to give scientists a grocery store and a personal chef who can create any dish they want.”

The team has used ReLeaSE to generate molecules with properties that they specified, such as desired bioactivity and safety profiles. The team used the ReLeaSE method to design molecules with customized physical properties, such as melting point and solubility in water, and to design new compounds with inhibitory activity against an enzyme that is associated with leukemia.

“The ability of the algorithm to design new, and therefore immediately patentable, chemical entities with specific biological activities and optimal safety profiles should be highly attractive to an industry that is constantly searching for new approaches to shorten the time it takes to bring a new drug candidate to clinical trials,” said Tropsha.

At least one of the creators of the AI system seems to have the wrong view of drug patents. Patents on “chemical entities” are definitely not what we need more of.

The U.S. spent $450 billion on prescription drugs in 2017, an amount that could have been about $380 billion less if there were no drug patent monopolies. With that $450 billion, the pharmaceutical industry spent around $70 billion in research and development — less money than they spent on stock buybacks that reward shareholders (and most people aren’t significant shareholders).

It would be sensible to get rid of drug patent monopolies that allow for ridiculous prices, and then simply have the government pay for the $70 billion in research directly. The difference would amount to a savings worth thousands of dollars per family, and it would mean better pharmaceutical research too.

Trade as Representing Class Interests Over Country Interests

Trade has often functioned as a way for the powerful to gain at the expense of others. Trade is something that could be incredibly good due to countries with different resources cooperating, but the record of the last several decades shows that trade is more about exploitation than improving the lives of the general population.

The economist and policy types who have been pushing the trade agenda of the last four decades often make assertions like “everyone gains from trade.” This is what is known in the economics profession as a “lie.”

No models show that everyone gains from trade. Standard models show that some groups are benefitted by trade and others are hurt. The usual story is that the winners gain more than the losers lose.

This means in principle that the winners can compensate the losers so that everyone is better off. In the real world, this compensation never takes place, so when we talk about trade we’re talking about a policy that redistributes from some groups to others.

Our trade policy over the last four decades has been quite explicitly designed to redistribute income upward. This was the point of deals like NAFTA, or admitting China to the WTO.

These deals were about putting US manufacturing workers in direct competition with much-lower-paid workers in the developing world. The expected and actual effect of these policies is to reduce employment in manufacturing. This also put downward pressure on the wages of the manufacturing workers who kept their jobs, as well as on the wages of less-educated workers more generally, since manufacturing has historically been a source of relatively high-paying employment for workers without college degrees.

This is not a story of free trade. Our trade deals did little or nothing to make it easier for highly educated professionals to work in the United States. As a result, our doctors earn on average roughly twice as much as doctors in other wealthy countries, even as our manufacturing workers earn considerably less than their counterparts in Germany and several other countries.

In the last decade, China began running huge trade surpluses with the United States in large part because it deliberately held down the value of its currency. This has the effect of making China’s exports more competitive in the world economy.

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But contrary to Trumpian rhetoric, the resulting trade deficit doesn’t mean China wins and the United States as a whole loses. Companies like GE that have manufacturing facilities in China are very happy to have China keep down its production costs.

The same is true of big retailers like Walmart that are able to undercut competition with their low-cost supply chains in China. Higher-paid professionals who are largely protected from foreign competition also benefit, since they get access to cheaper imports without having to lose anything on the wage side.

Trump could have tried to at least partially reverse the upward redistribution from the US trade deficit if he had followed through on his campaign promise to put China’s currency management (he calls it “manipulation”) front and center in his trade policy. Instead, currency management appears nowhere in his vague and ever shifting complaints against China. Perhaps the beneficiaries from the overvalued dollar put enough pressure on Trump to drop one of his main campaign issues.

Instead, we have been treated with endless stories from news outlets where commentators express concern that Trump may not be sufficiently focused on the question of China “stealing” technology from US corporations. This is again where it is essential to remember it is class, not country, that matters here.

If Chinese corporations use technology developed by Boeing, Microsoft, or other US giants, this is bad news for their stockholders, but it doesn’t directly harm the rest of us. In fact, if the Chinese corporations can then produce the same products at a lower price and then export them to the United States, this would be a gain for non-stockholders. This is the classic argument for free trade.

In fact, if China has to pay less money to companies for patents and copyrights, it will have more money to buy other goods and services from the United States. Supposedly, economists are worried about inequality in the United States. If China doesn’t honor our patents and copyrights, it will be a step toward addressing this problem.

The long and short is that when Trump or anyone else tries to argue about the US interest in a particular trade policy, we’d better look more closely. They are trying to conceal who is really winning, and losing.

Patents and Copyrights as Plutocratic Tariffs That are Relics of the Medieval Guild System

A useful analysis rarely seen in the debate.

Many pundits have attacked Trump’s focus on steel and manufacturing because they argue, we should be more concerned about protecting US corporations’ patents and copyrights overseas. This doesn’t make sense.

At the most basic level, stronger and longer patent and copyright protection means that people in other countries have to pay more money. These government-granted monopolies often allow companies to raise the price of the protected items by a factor of 10 or even a 100. In this way, they are equivalent to tariffs of several thousand percent.

Just to be clear, this is not a point that can be honestly disputed by economists. If a government barrier raises the price of a good, it doesn’t matter whether we call that barrier a “tariff” or a “patent,” the impact on the market is the same.

This means if Pfizer’s patent protection on a drug allows it to raise the price it charges for a drug in China or some other developing country by a factor of 10 over the free market price, it is equivalent to imposing a tariff of 1000 percent on the drug. The difference is that instead of the tariff revenue going to the government, it goes back to Pfizer as higher profits.

It’s obvious that higher profits for Pfizer are good for its shareholders and top executives, but why should the rest of us be happy about people in developing countries paying more money to Pfizer for its drugs? Many of us care more about poor people being able to get drugs than Pfizer’s profits.

The story gets even worse. The more money that Pfizer and other US companies collect overseas for their patents and copyrights, the less these people have to spend on other goods and services. In effect, because Pfizer can charge more for its drugs, people in China and other countries have less money to spend on US-made cars and planes. How is this good for most of the people in the United States?

The pushers of stronger and longer patent and copyright protection will undoubtedly claim that higher profits will provide more incentive for research and creative work. This is true, but what are the numbers? If Pfizer gets another $1 billion in profit will they invest one percent of it in research?

That would be an increase, but that means the world would be spending $1 billion in higher drug prices to get an additional $10 million in research. That’s not a very good deal. And, even this research could be largely wasted on developing copycat drugs that are intended to gain a portion of a competitor’s patent earnings by duplicating a successful drug. Again, that could be good for Pfizer, but it is not especially helpful for the rest of us who want to see research focused on developing treatments for conditions where there is not already an effective drug.

To be clear, we do need a mechanism for financing research and creative work, but there is little reason to believe that patent and copyright monopolies are the most effective tool. These are relics of the Medieval guild system. We can do better in the 21st century.

Latest Price Gouging as Cost of Gleostine Drug is Hiked 1400%

Drug patent monopolies have long been detrimental to the general population. In 2017, the U.S. spent over $450 billion (2.4 percent of annual GDP) on prescription drugs, an amount that would probably have been one fifth of that total if there were no government-granted drug patent monopolies. Furthermore, in world history’s richest country, it is absurd that about 20 percent of seniors regularly cannot afford their medication. That happens as the top five biggest pharmaceutical corporations made a combined $50 billion in profits for the year too.

Gleostine, which had its patent expire recently, is the latest example of this systemic pharmaceutical failure. The drug companies must be reined in, or these outrages will keep continuing into the future.

Critics of the pharmaceutical industry have expressed outrage over a Wall Street Journal analysis that found the owner of a 40-year-old cancer drug used to treat brain tumors and Hodgkin’s lymphoma has hiked the cost of the medication by 1,400 percent since acquiring it in 2013.

Lomustine, which was introduced in 1976, “has no generic competition, giving seller NextSource Biotechnology LLC significant pricing power,” the Journal reports, noting that lomustine is just “one of at least 319 drugs for which U.S. patents have expired but which have no generic copies, according to a list the agency published earlier this month.”

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reportedly working to speed up the approval process for generic versions of these drugs, some critics say the report demonstrates a need for a broader overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system, with the Robin Hood Tax campaign citing it as evidence for “why we need” Medicare For All, which has been promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a growing number of Democrats in Congress.

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“This is simply price gouging, period,” concluded Henry Friedman, a neuro-oncologist at Duke University who wrote an editorial criticizing the lomustine price hikes earlier this year. “People are not going to be able to afford it, or they’re going to pay a lot of money and have financial liability.”

Financing Prescription Drugs Using a Different System Without Harmful Drug Patent Monopolies

A new study finds that scientific breakthroughs are significantly as a result of collaboration. It used the development of five anti-cancer drugs to show how important researchers sharing information was, and it also strengthened the notion that beneficial scientific research tends to advance fastest when the results are fully open to view.

The study is evidence against the pharmaceutical research financing failure that is drug patent monopolies. Pharmaceutical corporations have an incentive to share as little of their research as possible to be granted their drug patent monopolies, as doing otherwise would risk threats to their profit margins through not receiving the patent. If the research findings are kept hidden from the public in this type of example, there is also a waste of resources to develop another similarly effective drug. This is notably seen with the Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi, which costs $84,000 for a 12 week course of treatment because the Gilead Sciences corporation has a patent monopoly on the drug. This is usefully contrasted with a high quality generic of Sovaldi selling for only $200 for the same three month course of treatment in India.

The U.S. government has the power to arrest people who sell Sovaldi in competition with Gilead Sciences, so the Abbvie corporation developed its own Hepatitis C cure drug known as Mavyret. Sovaldi was already an effective drug at curing Hepatitis C though, so the researchers that developed Mavyret could have been focused on other important research. This is, of course, a phenomenon that is continuously repeated with other drugs, and it prompts the logical conclusion of using a different system to finance pharmaceutical research.

A more ideal system would be to make drug patent monopolies illegal and have the U.S. government directly finance pharmaceutical research. The U.S. public already funds the National Institutes of Health with $30 billion annually, and even the pharmaceutical industry admits that is money well spent. PhRMA, the industry trade group, puts the amount that the pharmaceutical corporations spend on yearly research and development at only a somewhat higher total of $70 billion. This is in light of an important study revealing that pharmaceutical corporations spend more on stock buybacks that benefit the wealthy than they do on research and development. That is in light of the U.S. set to spend $450 billion (2.4 percent of GDP) on prescription drugs in 2017, an amount that would be $370 billion — half of the latest U.S. military budget approval — less if the patents and related unjust protections were removed from the pharmaceutical industry.

These large expenditures are especially significant considering that it’s been estimated that the U.S. will spend an even higher $610 billion a year on prescription drugs by 2021. With the current pharmaceutical system, that will mean that the U.S. could be spending about $120 billion on prescription drugs in 2021 instead of $610 billion.

The $370 billion possible to save currently though could be used in a variety of more productive ways than granting it to the pharmaceutical industry under the current financing system. For one example, the budget of the NIH could easily be boosted by a factor of five, making it $150 billion a year. What money remains is possible to spend on productive investment programs, such as an infrastructure project for clean and renewable energy. The U.S. economy is not doing that well for most of its people, but a significant improvement to that should be well-known — government investment to stimulate more demand.

The research done by the NIH could of course remain fully open for pharmaceutical companies and other organizations to use to develop drugs. Developed drugs could then be sold inexpensively without patent monopolies and the other unjust protections, which is how it should be done considering that prescription drugs are usually cheap to produce after their research process is completed. The firms developing valuable drugs should be rewarded for their innovative efforts, and they could be through the combination of governmental contracting, a publicly-funded prize system, and the demand of markets. That would almost certainly be a more beneficial system for the public interest than the current drug patent monopoly scandal, which is inefficient at advancing vital research and leaves many millions struggling to afford unnecessarily costly prescription drugs.

Thugnificently

In his own (admittedly questionable) way, Thugnificent wasn’t a sucker for the pharmaceutical industry’s tricks. You shouldn’t be a sucker for their tricks either. [Image is from S3E12 of The Boondocks.]

Drastic Inequality is from Policy, Not Technology Itself

Technology basically has no moral imperative. Policy has been what’s actually created the disastrous inequalities often seen today.

The most popular explanation for the sharp rise in inequality over the last four decades is technology. The story goes that technology has increased the demand for sophisticated skills while undercutting the demand for routine manual labor.

This view has the advantage over competing explanations, like trade policy and labor market policy, that it can be seen as something that happened independent of policy. If trade policy or labor market policy explain the transfer of income from ordinary worker to shareholders and the most highly skilled, then it implies inequality was policy driven, it is the result of conscious decisions by those in power. By contrast, if technology was the culprit, we can still feel bad about inequality, but it was something that happened, not something we did.

That view may be comforting for the beneficiaries of rising inequality, but it doesn’t make much sense. While the development of technology may to some extent have its own logic, the distribution of the benefits from technology is determined by policy. Most importantly, who gets the benefits of technology depends in a very fundamental way on our policy on patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property.

To make this point clear, consider how much money Bill Gates, the world’s richest person, would have if Windows and other Microsoft software didn’t enjoy patent or copyright protection. This would mean that anyone anywhere in the world could install this software on their computer, and make millions of copies, without sending Bill Gates a penny.

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The argument for intellectual property is well-known. The government grants individuals and corporations monopolies for a period of time, which allow them to charge well above the free market price for the items on which they have a patent or copyright. This monopoly gives them an incentive to innovate and do creative work.

Of course this is not the only way to provide this incentive. For example, the government can and does pay for much research directly. We spend over $30 billion a year on bio-medical research through the National Institutes of Health. Various government departments and agencies finance tens of billions of research each year in a wide variety of areas. In fact, it was Defense Department research that developed the Internet and also Unix, the program that was the basis for Dos, Microsoft’s original operating system.

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It is reasonable to argue whether patents and copyrights are the most efficient mechanisms for supporting innovation and creative work. In my book, Rigged: How the Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, I argued that in the 21st century they are in fact very inefficient mechanisms for this purpose. But separate from the question of whether these are the best mechanisms, there is no real dispute that intellectual property redistributes money from the people who don’t own it to the people who do. Not many people with just high school degrees own patents or copyrights; they are part of the story of upward redistribution.

Since intellectual property can be either longer and stronger or shorter and weaker, the decision about how much intellectual property we have is implicitly a decision about a trade-off between growth and inequality. (This assumes that longer and stronger IP rules lead to more growth, which is a debatable point, especially since productivity growth has slowed to a crawl in the last decade.) If we are concerned about the degree of inequality in society, one way to address it would be to shorten the duration of patents and copyrights or lessen their scope so that they are less valuable.

That would mean less money for the pharmaceutical industry, the medical equipment industry, and the software industry, as well as many other sectors that disproportionately benefit from IP. Shareholders in these industries would see a hit to their income, as would the top executives and highly educated workers they employ. The rest of the country would see a rise to their income as the price of a wide range of products would fall sharply.

And, there is a huge amount of money at stake. We are on a path to spend more than $450 billion this year on prescription drugs alone. If these drugs were sold in a free market without patents or other forms of protection we would almost certainly pay less than $80 billion. (Imagine the next great cancer drug selling for a few hundred dollars rather than a few hundred thousand dollars.)