NIH Grants Lead to Overwhelming Number of Private Sector Biomedical Patents

Thirty-one percent of NIH grants have been cited in biomedical patents.

A new study published by Science finds that research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have resulted in a significant number of private-sector biomedical patents. The substantial number of patents generated by NIH-funded studies highlights the importance of the funding and suggests it will further improve treatment options for patients.

The NIH includes multiple disease-focused research institutes and distributes approximately $32 billion in grants each year, making it the world’s largest source of funding for biomedical research.

Included in the analysis were 27 years of data for NIH-funded studies, which included 365,380 grants funded between 1980 and 2007.

The authors discovered that 31% of NIH grants are cited by patents in the biomedical industry, and more than 8% of NIH grants directly generated a patent, according to the study.

"The impact on the private sector is a lot more important in magnitude than what we might have thought before," said study author Pierre Azoulay, PhD.

Interestingly, the authors discovered no difference between basic or applied grants when looking at the frequency of which projects generated patents. Both grants were observed to have productive private-sector uses, according to the study.

"If you thought the NIH exists in an ivory tower, you're wrong," Dr Azoulay said. "They are the nexus of knowledge that really unifies 2 worlds."

The authors found that 30,829 NIH-funded studies were the direct basis for patents, while 17,093 were “Bayh-Dole” patents issued to universities and hospital, according to the study. An additional 112,408 grants were cited in 81,462 private-sector patents.

The authors wrote that even NIH-funded studies cited in future studies “demonstrate the additional reach that publicly funded science can have by building a foundation for private-sector R&D.”

The authors said that the prevalence of NIH-funded studies that either lead or contributed to patents is substantial due to the large scope of supported research.

"There is a lot of research we wouldn't necessarily expect to be relied upon in a patent," Dr Azoulay said.

While some studies can be considered more directly related to a specific disease than others, the frequency of patent generation does not vary greatly. Approximately 35% of disease-focused grants led to patents, compared with 30% otherwise, according to the study.

The authors concluded that the knowledge gained through NIH-funded studies has clearly made an impact in biomedical patents and patient outcomes.

"Grants produce papers, and papers are cited by patents used by pharmaceutical firms," Dr Azoulay concluded. "It's hard to think of an innovation [in biomedicine] that doesn't have a patent."