India nixes Pfizer's patent on cancer-fighter Sutent

India has blown another raspberry at Big Pharma. In its third strike against foreign drugmakers, the Indian patent office yanked Pfizer's ($PFE) patent on the kidney cancer drug Sutent. The move was a victory for local drugmakers Cipla and Natco Pharma, which legally protested Sutent's patent protection.

Pfizer plans to appeal the decision. But in doing so, it will join two of its Big Pharma brethren who've so far been unsuccessful. Bayer fought back when India forced it to license its cancer drug Nexavar to Natco, allowing the domestic drugmaker to launch a much cheaper copy. It was the Indian government's first compulsory license, allowed in certain circumstances under World Trade Organization rules.

And Novartis ($NVS) has been fighting for patent protection for its cancer fighter Glivec for years. The case wended its way to the country's Supreme Court. Neither company has been successful thus far. In fact, in Bayer's case, Cipla lowered the price on its own Nexavar version to beat even Natco's discount.

Pfizer has been selling Sutent in India since it won patent protection in 2007. Cipla and Natco opposed the patent soon after. And now, officials have agreed. "I conclude that the invention that is claimed in the patent does not involve any inventive step...and hence not patentable," Nilanjana Mukherjee, assistant controller of patents and designs at the Patent Office, Delhi, said in an order (as quoted by LiveMint).

Pfizer told the Business Standard that the patent office's decision raises questions about India's commitment to intellectual property. Indeed, the winds do seem to have shifted away from the enthusiasm for foreign investment that prompted India to overhaul its IP protections in the first place.

With foreign drugmakers' growth stymied in U.S. and Europe, they've turned to faster-growing markets such as India, snapping up some domestic companies and partnering with others. And that all seemed fine till Abbott Labs ($ABT) bought Piramal's generics business, becoming the country's biggest generics maker in the process. Since then, the country has experimented with limits on foreign investment in pharma, and the IP debate has intensified. Whether India's promise as a growth market will sour further is anybody's guess.

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