Challenges & Opportunities Of Cutting-Edge Health Technologies Discussed At WTO-WHO-WIPO Symposium

Cutting-edge health technologies – such as gene editing therapies for cancer – have the potential to save lives, and the international intellectual property system should be leveraged to drive innovation and bring those therapies to people who need them, said the leaders of global health, trade and intellectual property agencies at a Trilateral Symposium on Thursday.

The symposium, convened under the theme “Cutting-edge Health Technologies: Opportunities and Challenges,” is the eighth such open forum co-hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to foster collaboration around public health and intellectual property.

(left-right) Dr Tedros, Roberto Azevêdos, and Minelik Alemu Getahun.

“The essential insight is that while improving access to existing technologies remains an important priority, it will not suffice to meet future public health challenges,” said the WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, in his opening statement. He noted that advancements in new diagnostic tools, therapies, and prophylaxis treatments have greatly expanded the possibilities for treating and preventing certain diseases.

As an example, Azevêdo highlighted CAR-T (chimeric antigen receptor) cell therapy, a cutting-edge cancer treatment still under development. This form of cell therapy leverages advancements in gene editing by genetically altering natural white blood cells to attack cancerous cells. Public sector research institutions currently hold 40% of the patents in this area of medical research, while private firms hold 49%.

“How [the patent holders] choose to license these technologies will be an important factor in how therapies are rolled out in practice,” said Azêvedo.

The Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus agreed, stating that “Advances in science and technology are opening up new horizons in public health that were considered science fiction not so very long ago… And yet we continue to live in a world marked by shocking inequality.”

Dr Tedros posed the question, “How do we harness the power of innovation to narrow inequalities, rather than widen them?”

“We must understand better the benefits, costs and limitations of mechanisms for incentivizing innovation and their impacts on the pricing of health products,” he added, reaffirming WHO’s commitment to Universal Health Coverage, including increasing access to medicines and vaccines.

The IP system also faces challenges as scientific advancements quickly move forward, WIPO Assistant Director-General Minelik Alemu Getahun said, noting that IP regulations must balance “incentivizing and rewarding innovation” while ensuring that knowledge to support “continued innovation” is shared.

“Today’s discussions will explore the landscape of cutting-edge health technologies and consider some of the opportunities and challenges of optimizing their use in a variety of settings. We should endeavour to make our discussions as accessible to the public as possible by elucidating concepts and providing clear, fact-based information related to these exciting and ever-evolving health technologies,” he said.

The three opening speakers set the stage for a broader technical discussion on the challenges and opportunities of cutting-edge health technologies. A morning plenary reviewed highlights of new medical innovations in biotechnology, information technology, and the application of big data to the medical sector. A second panel focused more on issues of access to new medical innovations, affordability and increasing costs for health care systems, along with the ethics of using patient data.

For more information, see the WTO press release.

Image Credits: WTO.

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