Economist Heidi Williams Talks Patents and Cancer Research

Patents and Innovation
Heidi L. Williams, a professor of Economics at MIT, speaks about the role of patents in influencing innovation. Williams is one of the top scholars in the world on market innovation in health care.
UPDATED: March 31, 2017 at 1:56 a.m. MIT Economics professor Heidi L. Williams explored the economic incentives behind cancer research in a lecture Wednesday.

Williams’s research examines patents in the pharmaceutical industry. She found that private institutions are more likely to invest in research for later-stage cancers, whereas public entities invest in a broader spectrum of disease.

She added on Wednesday that while some of the disparity in research funding could be from challenges in studying some forms of the disease, the economic incentives of studying different stages of the disease could also account for the large amount of research being conducted for late stage cancers.

“On the margin, could that reflect not just the scientific challenge of different areas, but could that actually reflect the structure of economic incentives that we have provided for people who deal with this kind of research?” Williams said.

She also noted that cheaper and quicker clinical trials are needed to meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standards for late-stage cancer drug approval, because patients’ life expectancies are much lower.


“If you have a very sick group of patients that’s going to die very quickly, just the very simple economics between the power calculations, that is that you’re going to need a relatively short clinical trial in order to be able to show a statistically significant difference in your outcomes between your treatment and your control group,” Williams said.

Williams said patent processes in the United States also make clinical trials more effective for pharmaceutical companies—since drug patents are typically for 20 years, shorter clinical trials allow for more time before other companies can produce competing drugs.

“For one cohort of cancer patients that was diagnosed in the US since 2003, what would be the value of additional life that is generated for them if we had had short term trials, and you get a number of about $89 billion,” Williams said.

“We don’t take this number particularly seriously. I think that this number is more saying, I think this is a big enough distortion that it’s worth thinking about policies that are going to change this,” she added.

Harvard’s Economics department—which is aiming to address its lack of female faculty—is currently looking to recruit Williams.

Economics chair David I. Laibson said earlier this month that he is excited at the prospect of Williams coming to Harvard, and called her a “brilliant scholar.”

Andrew L. Garin, a Harvard graduate student who attended Williams’s talk, said he found her work “ extremely important.”


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