Drugs and rights
I’m not going to be writing about the war on drugs and human rights; instead, I have an even more important issue: life-saving medicines and how intellectual property rights can trample on human rights.
The year was 1949 and the world had seen, especially during World War II, the miracles of penicillin and related antibiotics.
But many people had allergies to that group of antibiotics and so could not benefit from the cures.
Drug companies were looking for alternatives to the penicillins, including the giant Eli Lilly. In Iloilo, Eli Lilly had a Filipino physician, Abelardo Aguilar, who worked for them as a detailman (drug representative). As a physician, he knew what was entailed in research for antibiotics and set out doing that on his own, discovering some soil from the Molo cemetery that exhibited antibacterial activity.
He sent the soil to Eli Lilly and, in 1952, the company announced a breakthrough—a new antibiotic called erythromycin, developed from Aguilar’s samples. Through the years, erythromycin and related antibiotics have saved countless lives from infections of the upper respiratory tract and the urinary tract.
This year then, we should be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of erythromycin and the role of a Filipino physician in that breakthrough. But Eli Lilly claimed the patent rights on the antibiotic and never publicly credited Aguilar. They did at least give the brand names Ilotycin and Ilosone to the new antibiotic, an acknowledgment of the drug’s origins.
Aguilar appealed to Eli Lilly first to at least allow him to visit the company’s erythromycin plant in the States. Nothing. He eventually left Eli Lilly and went into private practice, and was known as a doctor of the poor.
Late in life, he again wrote Eli Lilly, upping the ante now (I suspect partly out of spite) to US$500 million, which he said he would put into a foundation to help the poor.
He died in 1993, never getting any concessions from Eli Lilly. His daughter, Ma. Elena Aguilar Paguntalan, took up his deathbed wishes to continue the fight. The controversy caught the attention of government officials, including then Health Secretary Juan Flavier, but nothing came out of their efforts.
Then the media came in. The Inquirer featured a series of articles by Bobby Timonera and a scathing op-ed by Conrado de Quiros, titled “Greed.”
In 1995, Eli Lilly’s director for international corporate affairs finally wrote Paguntalan, explaining that “no company employee involved with research and development of any compound, regardless of where they are employed in our global organization, receives royalties or compensation for that work beyond his or her salary and benefits.”
I was aware of erythromycin’s being discovered in the Philippines and the relationship of that discovery to the brand name Ilosone, but had forgotten the connection until University of the Philippines Diliman vice chancellor Evangeline Amor told me about her attending a conference in Iloilo that discussed natural products as a source of medicines.
One of the main organizers of the conference was Dr. Doralyn Dalisay, a Balik Scientist now with the University of San Agustin in Iloilo, who came up with a different “Never Again” reminder during the meeting. This was a reference to the 70th anniversary of erythromycin and its Iloilo origins, as well as Aguilar not having received proper recognition and benefits.
The patents system has always been unfair—patents cornered by large companies that control research. The Philippines follows a patent system that protects companies’ rights not just for the product but over processes, meaning even if someone can find a way of producing the same product using a different process, they would not be allowed to do so. With their patents, drug companies end up dictating high prices for the medicines.
Researchers like Dr. Dalisay at the University of San Agustin hope to learn from history. She and others are once again looking for antibiotics, an urgent mission given widespread antibiotic resistance. She is looking again at Actinobacteria, the same kind of microorganisms that led to erythromycin’s discovery, but this time from marine sediments.
If I may, I’m pleased to say UP Diliman is in partnership with San Agustin and others for this kind of important research. If there’s “rampant drug use” in UP as has been claimed in the media lately, it is in the sense of looking for new drugs—from powerful painkillers to antibiotics—on land and in the seas.
Dr. Dalisay has presented very promising findings from their antibiotics research. She is determined that this research, now conducted by Filipinos, and with our own research funds, will benefit Filipinos.
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