Looting the Medicine Chest: How Bristol-Myers Squibb Made off with the Public's Cancer Research

By Nader, Ralph; Love, James | The Progressive, February 1993 | Go to article overview

Looting the Medicine Chest: How Bristol-Myers Squibb Made off with the Public's Cancer Research


Nader, Ralph, Love, James, The Progressive


How Bristol-Myers Squibb made off with the public's cancer research

Taxol, a drug made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, may be the most important cancer medicine yet. The news media have served up a feast of articles on Taxol, including several sensationalizing a highly misleading conflict between the welfare of cancer patients and the fate of the spotted owl. But very little has turned up in print about how one firm, Bristol-Myers Squibb, gained its monopoly over this drug.

At present, the only approved source for Taxol is the Pacific yew, a rare and slowly maturing tree found mostly on Federal lands. The discovery of Taxol and its cancer-fighting properties was made possible by decades of taxpayer-funded research, which has been widely published and is now in the public domain.

The Federal Government played an extensive and undisputed role in Taxol research. A recent article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute lists 138 published citations of Taxol research, including reports on studies by the NCI dating to the late 1960s. Early (Phase I) studies of the effect of Taxol on cancer patients were carried out on Government grants at Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the University of Texas, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the University of Wisconsin.

According to Dr. Samuel Broder, director of NCI, his Federal agency was "totally responsible" for the development of Taxol, including:

[para] collection of the bark;

[para] all biological screening in both cell cultures and animal-tumor systems;

[para] chemical purification, isolation, and identification;

[para] large-scale production;

[para] preclinical toxicology;

[para] filing of an Investigative New Drug Application (INDA) with the Food and Drug Administration, along with all required documentation;

[para] sponsorship of all clinical trials.

Because research on Taxol, including its effectiveness in treating cancer, has been publicly reported in professional journals, neither the drug nor the idea of using it on cancer patients can be patented, even by the Federal Government.

Nonetheless, Bristol-Myers Squibb has secured a monopoly on the drug despite the fact that it was in the public domain and is produced from trees found on public lands. How? It happened through a series of unusual contracts. The Bush Administration gave the company exclusive rights to harvest the Pacific yew trees that grow on Federal lands and exclusive rights to use the millions of dollars' worth of Federal research on Taxol.

One contract gives Bristol-Myers Squibb the rights to Pacific yews growing on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, at no charge. A second agreement gives it the rights to Pacific yews growing on lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management - in this case, at token prices of five to twenty cents per pound for the scarce bark. (Less than forty pounds of bark is needed to produce enough Taxol for a complete course of treatment for ovarian cancer, so the cost to the company per completed patient treatment tops out at $2 to $8.)

By virtue of a remarkable "Cooperative Research and Development Agreement," NCI has agreed to make historical research findings completed before the company entered the Taxol picture, as well as "new studies and raw data" from NCI-funded Taxol research, "available exclusively to Bristol-Myers Squibb," so long as the company is "engaged in the commercial development and marketing of Taxol."

What are these "raw data"? Most important are the medical histories of sick persons who turn to Government-funded programs to receive experimental drugs. Information about whether these people live or die, or how they suffer, has become, under this agreement, the exclusive commercial property of Bristol-Myers Squibb. …

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