Cancer research, Italy sixth for patent requests

Cancer research, Italy sixth for patent requests

How is innovation measured in science? One of the methods to do this is to analyze how many of the intuitions and studies born in the academic field, within startups or in large companies have been transformed into patentable applications. If we narrow down the field by discipline it is possible to get a measure of how much research has progressed in the different sectors. L’European Patent Office (Epo) did it for the innovations that have occurred in the oncology field from 1970 to today. Since then we have totaled more than 140 thousand, they say, with dizzying growth in the last few years. It is led by pharmaceutical companies, especially in the USA, but the role of universities and public institutes has also grown.

From treatments to bioinformatics: what is needed in the fight against cancer

The reports presents a detailed analysis of both patents related to oncology (in the document we speak more properly of International patent families – IPF, or family of international patents, i.e. the same invention covered by patents in at least two countries). Innovations developed in four different macrofields are taken into consideration: that of diagnosis and monitoring of the disease (from imaging techniques to liquid biopsies); that of treatments (from surgery to medical therapies); that of the models used to study cancer; one that embraces the vast field of information and communication technologies (ICT) related to tumors (from bioinformatics to artificial intelligence). Some of these innovations, the same report specifies, are still considered experimental: moreover, we are talking about patentable innovations, for which there is an interest in having exclusive protection and use, and not always technologies that have already entered into practice clinic.

A surge of innovations since 2015

Going into the merits of the data, the report underlines the very strong increase in the number of patents that occurred from 2015 onwards: there were almost 8 thousand in 2015, they became over 13 thousand in 2021. The driving force was above all immunotherapy, gene therapy, therapies that exploit non-coding nucleic acids, liquid biopsies and information technologies. The United States has led oncology innovation (practically always: it has accounted for over 50% of IPFs in the last twenty years), followed – with a notable gap – by the European Union, Japan and China, which in the last two years of monitoring has reached and surpassed the 27-nation Europe. In the Old Continent, at the top of the ranking of the most innovative countries of the last twenty years are Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Italy is sixth.

Not just big companies

But who is asking for these patents? They are mainly large companies, but not only, especially looking at the trends of recent years. Eight out of ten of the companies that led innovation against cancer between 2002 and 2021 are large companies – not only from the pharmaceutical but also technological industries. Roche is in first place, with over 3000 IPFs, followed by University of California and in third place by Novartis. The University of California system and the French Inserm (public institution) are the only two entities other than the industrial giants to appear in the ranking. With an ever-increasing weight in recent years: if in fact we narrow our gaze only to the years between 2017 and 2021, the University of California system leads the ranking, followed by Roche and then by Inserm. Overall, from 2002 to 2021 universities, hospitals and research institutes were the driver of a third of all cancer innovations.

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