Tertiary Patents: An Emerging Phenomenon

By Jonathan J. Darrow

Brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers have long been known to try to protect and extend their market exclusivity periods by obtaining patents on a drug’s substance (“primary patents”) and also on its peripheral features, such as formulations or methods of manufacture (“secondary patents”). A new study describes an emerging phenomenon of “tertiary patents,” which have the potential to further delay and discourage market entry in the context of drug-device combination products.

Combination products are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include therapeutic products that combine a drug with a device, such as an inhaler or injector pen. These products can sometimes offer life-changing or life-sustaining treatment, as with naloxone (Narcan) for opioid overdose or epinephrine (EpiPen) for severe allergic reactions. In recent years, these and other similar products have been the subject of substantial controversy related to their prices and prolonged lack of generic competition.

To investigate the potential role of patents on the prices and exclusivity periods of drug-device combination products, two researchers at the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (where I hold a faculty appointment) conducted a comprehensive evaluation of drug-device combination patents registered with the FDA. They found that patents related to drug delivery devices have tripled since the year 2000 and contribute a median of five years of additional market exclusivity to those products (subject, of course, to potential judicial or administrative patent invalidation). Furthermore, the researchers identified a subset of 31 products having only device patents (i.e., having no primary or secondary patents), and found that these patents were scheduled to expire a median of 17 years after FDA approval. Continue reading