How long does a patent last for drugs?


Copyright © DrugPatentWatch. Originally published at https://www.drugpatentwatch.com/blog/

Sure, here’s a more detailed explanation with examples:

Drug Patent Duration

Drug patents are granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a period of 20 years from the date of filing the patent application. However, the effective commercial life of a drug patent is often much shorter due to the lengthy process of research, development, and regulatory approval required before a new drug can be brought to market.

The Drug Development Process

The journey from initial drug discovery to market approval is a long and arduous one, typically taking 10 to 15 years. Here’s a breakdown of the key stages:

  1. Discovery and Preclinical Research: This initial phase involves identifying potential drug candidates, conducting laboratory tests, and animal studies to evaluate safety and efficacy. This can take 3 to 6 years.
  2. Clinical Trials: Once a promising drug candidate is identified, it must go through a series of clinical trials to test its safety and efficacy in humans. This process is divided into three phases:
  • Phase I: Small-scale trials (20-100 healthy volunteers) to assess safety and dosage.
  • Phase II: Larger trials (100-300 patient volunteers) to evaluate efficacy and side effects.
  • Phase III: Large-scale trials (1,000-3,000 patients) to confirm efficacy, monitor side effects, and compare to existing treatments.
    Clinical trials can take 6 to 7 years to complete.
  1. Regulatory Review and Approval: After successful clinical trials, a New Drug Application (NDA) is submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review and approval. This process can take an additional 1 to 2 years.

Effective Patent Life

By the time a new drug receives FDA approval and can be marketed, a significant portion of the 20-year patent term has already elapsed. On average, only about 7 to 12 years of the patent term remain after approval.

For example, let’s consider the case of Lipitor (atorvastatin), a widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drug:

  • The initial patent for Lipitor was filed in 1986.
  • After years of research and clinical trials, Lipitor received FDA approval in 1997.
  • By the time it was approved, 11 years had already passed since the patent filing.
  • Lipitor’s remaining patent life was only 9 years, expiring in 2006.

Patent Term Extensions

To compensate for the lengthy approval process, the Hatch-Waxman Act of 1984 allows for patent term extensions of up to 5 years, capping the total remaining patent life after approval at 14 years. Additionally, an extra 6-month pediatric exclusivity extension can be granted for conducting clinical trials in children, which can be applied twice.

Using the Lipitor example again:

  • Lipitor’s patent was extended by 2 years due to regulatory delays, extending its expiration to 2008.
  • It also received a 6-month pediatric exclusivity extension, further extending its patent life until June 2009.

Evergreening Strategies

Pharmaceutical companies often employ various strategies to extend the effective patent life and market exclusivity of their drugs, a practice known as “evergreening.” These strategies include:

  1. Filing Multiple Patents: Companies may file additional patents on different aspects of a drug, such as its formulation, delivery method, or manufacturing process. For example, Pfizer filed multiple patents on Viagra (sildenafil citrate), including patents on the drug itself, its use for treating erectile dysfunction, and its formulation.
  2. Combination Drugs: By combining an existing drug with a new active ingredient, a company can obtain a new patent on the combination product. For instance, Gilead Sciences obtained a new patent for the combination of its HIV drugs emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate, marketed as Truvada.
  3. Reformulations: Developing new formulations or delivery methods for an existing drug can also lead to new patents. For example, AstraZeneca obtained a new patent for a extended-release formulation of its antipsychotic drug Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate).

These evergreening strategies can effectively extend a drug’s market exclusivity and delay the entry of generic competition, although they are often criticized as an abuse of the patent system.

In summary, while drug patents are granted for 20 years, the effective commercial life of a drug patent is typically much shorter due to the lengthy development and approval process. Patent term extensions, pediatric exclusivity, and evergreening strategies are employed by pharmaceutical companies to maximize the exclusivity period and delay generic competition, but the actual remaining patent life after approval is often only 7 to 12 years.

Copyright © DrugPatentWatch. Originally published at



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