4 February is World Cancer Day, an international day marked to raise awareness of cancer and to encourage its prevention, detection, and treatment. According to recent statistics from the European Cancer Information System, nearly a third of men and a quarter of women in the EU are expected to be diagnosed with cancer before reaching the age of 75. As we all well know, cancer is a constant challenge to medical science, where the importance of innovation cannot be overstated. Invention is the key to enhanced detection, and new, more effective, targeted and personalised treatments.
An important metric in tracking innovation in the fight against cancer is the number of patents filed. Over the past 50 years, over 140,000 inventions relating to cancer have been the subject of patent applications. A new study released by the European Patent Office (EPO) provides further hope, showing that inventions relating to the fight against cancer (as measured by the number of cancer-related International Patent Families, or IPFs) are up by more than 70% since 2015. This is a steep rise, following something of a plateau in the previous decade.
Number of IPFs in all cancer-related technologies, 1972-2021
So where is this innovation taking place? According to the EPO study, the US accounts for nearly half of all IPFs from 2002 to 2021. Europe is in second place (with the EU having an 18% share), where Germany is the leading country of origin in cancer-related innovation, with the UK, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands catching up. Japan is in third place, with a 9% share.
Of the top 10 global corporate patent applicants in this field between 2015 and 2021, six were European and four were American. Universities and public research organisations are increasingly important innovators in the fight against cancer. Globally, between 2002 and 2021, they accounted for almost a third of cancer-related IPFs.
Matching science to investment
The development of new tools and medicines for the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer is heavily reliant on significant financial investment, and startups who develop cutting-edge technologies rooted in scientific breakthroughs and utilise technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biotechnology (‘deep tech’) play a vital role.
The EPO has a free tool, the Deep Tech Finder, which has recently been updated. The Deep Tech Finder aims to help in the development and commercialisation of new technologies for fighting cancer. The tool maps startups from all over Europe with patent applications, to help investors and potential partners find European startups with valuable new cancer technologies in the deep tech sector.
Mining patents for future research
Underlying the patent system is the so-called ‘patent bargain’ where the patentee is awarded a 20-year monopoly right in exchange for disclosing the invention to the public. The monopoly enables financial reward in order to incentivise further investment, whilst the public disclosure contributes to the collective knowledge base and serves as a valuable resource for researchers worldwide. This helps innovators to build upon existing ideas and prevents duplication of effort, driving technological progress.
In their search for inventive solutions in the battle against cancer, scientists and researchers may benefit enormously from patent disclosures of technical information about the most recent advances, and yet an unfamiliarity with patent databases may hinder their access to this resource. The EPO study is accompanied by a free online platform called Technologies Combatting Cancer. This assists researchers and investors in accessing technical information contained in patents from around the globe. It has datasets across four broad themes – prevention and early detection; diagnosis; therapies; and wellbeing and aftercare. This should be a valuable tool to assist innovators to realise the potential of the collective knowledge base, from the tens of thousands of potentially relevant patents available.
The EPO’s analysis of patenting activity heralds a positive message – innovation directed to combatting cancer is on the increase. An important step in maintaining that upward trajectory is securing vital investment for future research. The EPO’s Deep Tech Finder is to be applauded for its role in facilitating a match between investors and those at the cutting edge of research.
The patent system is the bedrock that incentivises that investment. Beyond that, it plays an important role in ensuring public disclosure of technical information that is invaluable in supporting research and driving further innovation. More applause is due to the EPO for its Technologies Combatting Cancer platform, which assists researchers in mining this voluminous resource.
The increasing use of innovative tech solutions to assist in the drive for innovation gives hope that the quest for enhanced cancer detection and better treatments reaps rewards in an increasingly shorter timeframe.