In any given week, about four dozen toddlers visit Dr. David Abramson’s preschool-like clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. And while most of them are barely old enough to speak, because of Dr. Abramson and the groundbreaking medical procedure he has created for a rare and potentially deadly eye cancer called retinoblastoma, they can see. (Here’s another groundbreaking treatment that scientists discovered for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia.)
The technique Dr. Abramson pioneered is called ophthalmic artery chemosurgery (OAC), and it involves delivering one fifth of a teaspoon of chemotherapy to a blood vessel in the eye. In the past, if the cancer didn’t respond well to then-available treatments, survival required removing the cancerous eye—if the parents would allow that. Throughout Asia and Africa, says Dr. Abramson, parents whose children have been diagnosed with retinoblastoma will often choose to let their children die with their eyes intact rather than live without them and suffer the stigma of disfiguration.
“This was a transformational change in our field,” says Dr. Abramson, who began using the technique in 2006. “Overnight, we went from taking out children’s eyes to not taking out children’s eyes.” OAC is now performed in 45 countries, where it allows doctors to save 95 percent of eyes afflicted with retinoblastoma.
But there’s an aspect of OAC that Dr. Abramson doesn’t talk about much, even though it is as inspirational as the technique itself. He won’t make a dime off OAC, because he refused to patent it. Pursuing a patent, he feared, would have meant keeping the technique under wraps for a long period of time while the paperwork was approved by the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office. In the meantime, untold numbers of children would have suffered and perhaps died. (These everyday, common words are actually trademarked—we bet you didn’t realize that.)
Patent experts wouldn’t venture a guess on exactly how much money Dr. Abramson left on the table by not patenting his procedure. But, says Devon Herrick, a health-care economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis, “the purpose of a medical procedure patent is that it allows a doctor to profit by teaching others to perform the procedure.” By not patenting, Dr. Abramson chose to forgo those profits.
“I want people to know that when I endorse something, it’s from my scientific heart, not because I had any financial benefit,” he says. “And ultimately, our goal was to help children. Our driving force in this was not to make money.”