April 17, 2009

Clash between property, human rights explored

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Laurence Helfer, J.D., M.B.A., talks with VUSN’s Carole Etherington, M.S.N., R.N., after his World Health Week lecture on Tuesday. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Clash between property, human rights explored

Nothing, perhaps, illustrates the tension between property rights and human rights as well as the development and distribution of new drugs for devastating diseases like HIV/AIDS.

And nothing may be better able to relieve that tension than universities.

That was one of the conclusions drawn by Vanderbilt law professor Laurence Helfer, J.D., M.P.A., during a World Health Week lecture on Tuesday in Light Hall.

Helfer, who directs the International Legal Studies Program at Vanderbilt, supports the Philadelphia Consensus Statement, which proposes major reforms in the way universities develop and license biomedical research discoveries.

The statement was adopted in Philadelphia in 2006 at the annual meeting of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), a student group that seeks to make life-saving medicines more accessible in developing countries.

The proposed reforms include:

• Requiring technology transfer agreements to ensure low-cost access to health-related innovations in the developing world;

• Promoting research on neglected diseases, such as river blindness, which is unlikely to attract pharmaceutical company investment; and

• Measuring research “success” according to its impact on human welfare.
Helfer said he does not favor abandoning patents as a way of protecting intellectual property rights. Some market protections are necessary to encourage investment in high-risk research.

Increasingly, however, universities like Vanderbilt are making major contributions to early drug discovery in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry. As such, they “are very well positioned to leverage their economic influence to change the way in which innovation occurs,” he said.

Helfer's lecture was sponsored by the Vanderbilt chapter of UAEM, which will hold a Philadelphia Consensus Statement signing from noon to 3 p.m., Friday, April 17, in the Light Hall North Lobby.

A schedule for the World Health Week lectures, organized by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's International Health Committee, can be found at http://www.global-health.vanderbilt.edu/.