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Wednesday, September 8, 2004

When Knowledge is Free ...

Following Alexander Fleming's work in the 1920s, the preferred method in many quarters for tackling bacterial infection has been based on the use of antibiotics, of which penicillin remains the best-known example.

In the West, the antibiotic method completely replaced an earlier method, known as phage therapy, in which pathogenic bacteria were attacked by other microorganisms known as phages.

However, it now turns out that there are limits to the power of antibiotics. Phage therapy apparently remains useful for deep infections, and for "superbug" bacteria such as MRSA that have developed resistance to antibiotics.

I do not know whether phage therapy works; my limited knowledge of it is based on newspaper articles and pro-phage websites. But there seems enough evidence at least to take it seriously as a potential innovation.
What worries me is that there may be barriers to innovation, denying phage therapy a fair chance to prove itself and reestablish itself.

Considerable research into phage therapy has been carried out in Eastern Europe, and it is widely practised in such countries as Georgia and Poland. However, Western economics does not favour phage research, because it is too old and there are few opportunities for patent protection. Phage therapy apparently survived only in countries where capitalism (along with other human freedoms) was suppressed for decades. From an innovation point of view, this is worrying.

MRSA kills many people, and costs healthcare organizations huge amounts of money. So there should surely be economic incentives to develop a more effective approach.

But economic incentives clearly favour some classes of innovation, and disfavour others – and this doesn't depend solely on the social or medical value of these innovations. Perhaps the Western economic system is like a monoculture, which potentially reduces the variety and wealth of innovation.

From an economic viewpoint, innovation is equated with knowledge. Economists and businessmen are primarily interested in the types of knowledge that are amenable to legal protection and commercial exploitation.

Technologies are abandoned for many reasons, not always good ones. Sometimes, as here, there may be good reasons to restore an old technology. But restoration of an old technology has particular difficulties, and does not follow the same path as the dissemination of a wholly new technology.


Update

"Stitches and dressings laced with bacteria-killing viruses could help stop the spread of MRSA in operating theatres, according to researchers at Strathclyde University." [BBC News, 31 March 2008]. Does this mean the barriers to innovation I discussed above have been overcome? Let's hope so.

See also Hospital Superbugs.

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