Weeds and Pharmacology

Dan’s post got me to thinking about something my father told me a while back. There are all sorts of plants and so forth that supposedly have medicinal properties. Let’s say one of them is the real deal. Maybe some weed that you can find growing in empty lots in the average cities, when made into a tea and consumed as such, reduces the pain felt by sufferers of one or other type of cancer. Or perhaps it even goes some way toward combating the cancer.

If a doctor were to notice such an effect and start suggesting this weed’s properties should be investigated… who has an incentive to put up the money to do the investigation? Certainly not the pharmaceutical companies – a weed that grows by itself on empty lot won’t get much protection from patents, as anyone can go and grab some for him/herself or grow their own. My guess is most doctors at the NIH and CDC and universities (i.e., the folks operating on the public dime) also don’t – the system is set up, I imagine, so that they make money if they can make money for pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps a hospital system – but the costs of such tests are huge, and the expected reduction in costs that would come about even if the tests proved that the weed had the desired properties might not be enough to justify the costs of running the tests.

So… does anyone have an incentive to look into something like this? If not, does it make sense and how can the system be changed?


Update… I modified the sentence about companies and patents.