AI could threaten pharmaceutical patents

Artificial intelligence could help to identify more-effective candidate drugs (see Nature 557, S55–S57; 2018). However, this dream held by patients, clinicians, physicians and the public-health system could become a nightmare for the pharmaceutical industry.

The development of a clinically active ingredient generally costs hundreds of millions of euros, so the compound needs to be protected by a worldwide patent for the process to be economically feasible. A patent is granted only when a compound’s application can be classified as both ‘new’ and ‘invented’. A highly effective compound thrown up by an AI algorithm could indeed be new. Whether it is ‘invented’, however, is debatable. This is because the inventor might be considered as either the algorithm (so not a person) or its programmer.

It could be argued that if there is a connection between the program and the compound’s structure, then it is predictable by experts and so no longer inventive. Or, if the programmer can’t explain how the AI algorithm found the structure, then he or she didn’t invent anything. Assigning and agreeing on intellectual-property rights will be even more complex when different parts of the process behind important discoveries involve multiple contributors.

Patent law would presumably have to be adapted, for example by acknowledging the development work through a temporary ban on imitation.

Nature 558, 519 (2018)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05555-6


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