The Race-Based Drug Race

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Some ethnic groups suffer particular ailments at higher rates—think of Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews or sickle-cell anemia among those from sub-Saharan Africa—so it’s natural that pharmaceutical companies might investigate drugs that could help particular populations. But GeneWatch (May/June 2007) reports that something else might be behind some firms’ efforts to get race-specific patents for their products: an extended period of monopolistic control. Take NitroMed’s BiDil, a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June 2005 for treatment of heart failure in African Americans. The drug, much ballyhooed as the first approved for use in a specific racial or ethnic group, had previously been patented for use in the general population. That original patent, also held by the Massachusetts-based company, expires in 2007. The new race-specific patent holds until 2020, adding 13 years to NitroMed’s monopoly over the drug’s market, even though experts disagree on whether BiDil works any better for African Americans than it does for everyone else.