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Research universities must act

October 3, 2007

AS HARVARD'S new president takes the helm, over 300 students from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom converged on the university last weekend for the fourth annual conference of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. UAEM leads an international student movement to make the fruits of university research - in particular, lifesaving medications developed in university labs - available in developing countries. The convergence of UAEM's growing movement in Cambridge has presented a moment of opportunity - and imperative - for Boston's universities.

In her address to the parents of the Class of 2011, the first class over which she will preside, Harvard President Drew Faust reminded us that universities are unique because of their "missions of public service."

"The research university," she said, "is a strange hybrid of free thought and worldly utility, pursuing knowledge for its own sake, and at the same time advancing knowledge for the public good."

Last spring, Harvard joined eight other leading universities in a statement of principles, proclaiming, in a similar voice, that "in no field is the importance [of universities' special role] clearer than it is in medicine.   "The statement acknowledged that universities therefore have a "responsibility" to help ensure that university-developed medicines are available "globally, at sustainable and affordable prices, for the benefit of the world's poor."

But, as one of Harvard's peer universities has demonstrated, words are not enough. In Thailand, people are being denied life-saving treatment because Abbott Laboratories has withdrawn its medicines from the Thai market. The government is facing a massive health crisis as a result of HIV/AIDS, yet it cannot afford to pay the very high prices of HIV/AIDS medicines being charged by some brand-name pharmaceutical companies. It decided, in the interests of its own people, to exercise its legal right to allow Thai generic companies to produce reasonably priced medications for Thai HIV/AIDS patients. Abbott struck back at the Thai patients themselves. The move has been condemned by Doctors without Borders, Bill Clinton, and many others.

Critically, among the seven drugs that Abbott withdrew is Zemplar, a life-saving kidney medication developed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin. Students at Wisconsin approached their university about the disconnect between Abbott's behavior and the principles that Wisconsin embraced in last year's statement, about how it expected its discoveries to be deployed. The licensing office associated with the university replied: "Abbott Laboratories is a good friend of [Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation] and the university, particularly in the hiring of UW graduates. . . . We trust that Abbott Laboratories is committed to doing its part to meet the health needs of people around the world, including Thailand. We support Abbott in that commitment."

What has become of the special role of universities? Unfortunately, as Wisconsin has shown this year, mere statements of principle and words on paper are not enough. It is time for universities to act on their promises.

Most university medical research is funded with taxpayer money. The medicines our scientists discover should benefit the people who need them.  Last year in Philadelphia, UAEM students launched the "Philadelphia Consensus Statement," signed by thousands, including eminent scholars, Nobel laureates, activists, and university students around the world.   The statement called on universities to include explicit access provisions in the agreements those universities make with pharmaceutical companies, governing the use of the university patent on the medical discovery. Such provisions would allow generic drug companies to produce low-cost versions of university-discovered drugs as long as they were destined only for the developing world.

The UAEM student leaders meeting in Harvard last weekend called on their universities to act urgently to give teeth to their promises. The University of Wisconsin must demand that Abbott reinstates Zemplar on the Thai market, along with the other essential medicines. Universities must honor their social role by joining the movement to ensure that patients worldwide have access to the life-saving drugs that have been funded by the American public and discovered by American scientists working in American universities. Harvard and MIT should commit to leading the way in turning the promises of their commitment from words into action.

*Rachel Kiddell-Monroe **is the board president and* *Ethan Guillen**is the executive director of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.*