Friday, October 1, 2010

Florey: if patents fail, try trademarks

By March 1941, Howard Florey ( the son of an industrialist who made his fortune through his knowledge of  patents, trade secrets and trademarks ,as both a buyer and a seller ) knew that no drug firm was likely to take out a license on his penicillin purification process, even if he did get Oxford University or the MRC to patent it.

Taking it as a given that no one applies for a patent for a process that does not work at all, the usual delay and expense is over determining whether the process is truly novel.

The question as to whether it is truly commercial is left to the market.

A process that costs more to yield less product than an existing process, is not going to find any licensees even if the fees were pennies per annum.

Pfizer had citric acid, Florey had COKE

But Florey had basically kept his (highly inefficient) process highly secret - and an inefficient process that remains a trade secret, combined with a lot of chutzpah and legwork, can still make for a perfectly viable and profitable trade mark.

You simply claim that your product is superior than anyone else's because of your secret formula ,kept in a bank vault, ( Coke anyone?) and so is worth a superior price.

You simply substitute the power of saturation advertising when saturation catalyst chemistry fails to produce the expected yield.

This is what Florey commenced to do on his trip to America - insist that only Oxford University brand penicillin was the one and only true penicillin - just as the world had gotten used to being told that Oxford had the only real English bible and the only real English dictionary and the only real English accent.

I couldn't see this going down a ton in Plymouth,UK, a Royalist stronghold in the (English) Civil War, but at Yale and Harvard USA where the American rebels had fought and won a revolution against Oxford imposing its religious and cultural values on other faiths, this sort of stuff was a big hit.

I am sorry to say this - but when it comes to truly sucking up to any and every aristocrat - our American friends are suckers of the first water.

 The chimera of penicillin 

'Penicillin' doesn't actually exist - at least not as a single entity : rather it is the overall name for a large sub family of an even bigger family of antibiotics called the beta-lactams.

 Almost all of these penicillins are defined as being hydrophobic (ie having non-polar side chains) antibiotics produced by fungi ,not bacteria ,that act mostly on gram positive bacteria and contain at their core the vital beta-lactam structure.

Reverse most of this, but leave the beta-lactam core and you have the cephalosporins antibiotic sub family.

Florey would rant at anyone who produced different results (like his long suffering friends at Merck) that their penicillin couldn't possibly be the real penicillin if it wasn't like his.

But it could be and was - different food mediums and conditions produced different types of beta-lactams and also differing amounts of antiobiotics that were not beta-lactams, from the same strain of penicillium.

In addition the penicillium frequently and rapidly mutated into different strains that could produce differing amounts of different penicillins in response to a fixed /standard set of conditions and food mediums.

Aaaaarrrgh !!!!!

In real life, outside the lab, reality was often as messy and untidy as real Australia was from its citizens' visions of a pure white only Australia.

Florey was a purity-wonk

Unfortunately, unlike his pragmatic Dad, Florey's main motif throughout his life was to seek out purity in all its forms - moral as well as chemical - we see this repeatedly referenced in his letters to his future wife Ethel from the 1920s.

I think Florey's barnstorming of America worked - he couldn't claim he had been the first in anything important in penicillin beyond the mouse test - Fleming, Paine and Dawson saw to that - but he could at least claim he had the purest penicillin on Earth.

To save lives, penicillin dose size, not quality, matters more...

I'll say it again - pure is a relative term, a percentage term - bacteria die and people's lives are saved only by large absolute amounts of penicillin - regardless of their relative purity.

Florey's all out pursuit of purity quality over penicillin quantity was a moral failing of the highest possible order.

In the war against Hitler and his racist purity views, to work full out, from 1938 to 1945, on finding an all-white penicillin was as obscene as as seeking to preserve  an all-white Australia --- or an all-white Germany......

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