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‘Patenting in the public interest:’ administration of insulin patents by the University of Toronto

Abstract : Whereas the norms of the academic world and medical ethics prohibited academics and doctors from applying for patents on medical inventions, the University of Toronto decided in 1922 to file a patent application on the discovery of insulin, covering both the therapeutic substance and the isolation and purification processes developed by the inventors. The University extended its patent to 25 countries in North America, Europe, Latin America, Australia, India and Japan. An Insulin Committee was set up to "administer the patents in the public interest". Toronto University's intention was to use its industrial property rights in a particular way: to control the standards and quality of a potentially dangerous drug, and to prevent the emergence of a monopoly that might limit the drug's accessibility to patients. The administration of insulin patents "in the public interest" was a highly controversial subject during the inter-war years. On the one hand there were those who advocated regulation of the quality of drugs via patents and, on the other hand, those who opposed the idea of the University of Toronto receiving royalties to finance its medical research. On 23 January 1922 at the Toronto General Hospital, Leonard Thompson, a young diabetic close to death, received an injection of a bovine pancreas extract. He consequently recovered his strength and a satisfying life, provided he received daily injections and observed a strict lifestyle. i The extract in question was produced in an artisanal way by a biochemist, James Bertram Collip, who was assisting two young doctors, Frederik Grant Banting, a surgeon, and Charles Herbert Best, still a student, in the University of Toronto physiology department headed by physiologist John James Richard Macleod. The event caused a sensation in the medical profession and was headline news, both locally and internationally. The enterprise that was then launched was the purification of an unknown substance first called iletin and then insulin ii. Its
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Maurice Cassier, Christiane Sinding. ‘Patenting in the public interest:’ administration of insulin patents by the University of Toronto. History and Technology, Taylor & Francis (Routledge), 2008, 24 (2), pp.153 - 171. ⟨10.1080/07341510701810948⟩. ⟨halshs-01894181⟩

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