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Originally published Friday, May 27, 2011 at 3:17 PM

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Guest columnist

Medical innovation demands federal patent reform

Guest columnist Andy Hill urges Congress to enact a more reliable U.S. patent system, especially for biomedical innovations. The Senate has enacted reforms that are now before the House of Representatives.

Special to The Times

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I HAD stage-III lung cancer, and I'm alive today because of a medical miracle.

So when the U.S. Senate passed a patent-reform bill last month to streamline U.S. patent law with a 95-5 vote and overwhelming, bipartisan support, including Washington Sen. Patty Murray, I was thrilled. Now the debate on our patent laws begins in earnest in the U.S. House of Representatives.

America is facing so many challenges at home and abroad, why should we make patent reform a priority? Two reasons: It is critical to our nation's economic competitiveness and your life may depend on it.

A stronger U.S. patent system is crucial to our global economic competitiveness in all industries, and especially in medical innovation. With a streamlined patent system, American inventors will have the incentives and protections necessary to drive innovation, create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Washington is a leader in critical, knowledge-based industries. If these important patent laws aren't modernized, our state will be hit hard.

In fact, our biomedical sector is a prime example of what's at stake. Supporting more than 77,000 jobs in the state, this sector contributes heavily to our economy and develops drugs and therapies that save people's lives every day — as I know from experience.

In March 2009 I was diagnosed with stage-III lung cancer. I had never smoked a day in my life and was playing soccer and lacrosse a week before I got the bad news.

After I underwent chemotherapy and radiation, the plan was to remove my left lung, but when doctors found the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, they stopped. I was told I would have to wait and see if the initial round of therapy had killed the cancer.

Meanwhile, the cancer had taken a terrible toll on my body: It was hard for me to get out of bed in the morning; I was constantly fatigued, and had a constant cough and chest pains. Though I could walk up stairs, I thought twice about it because it left me exhausted. I also lost my voice (in which, admittedly, my family saw some benefit).

Like so many others, I wasn't satisfied with just waiting. I started doing research online and worked with my doctors at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to look at alternative treatments. That's how I found out about a clinical trial for a new drug therapy that I thought I might qualify for.

A pharmaceutical company had been working to develop a drug that would inhibit a cancer-promoting gene mutation from producing more cancerous cells. After a review of a sample of my cancer cells, I learned that I had qualified for the trial.

I started taking pills twice a day and, within a week, my symptoms had dissipated. By the second week my voice returned and by the third week I was jogging again with my wife. That was a year and a half ago. I get scanned on a regular basis, and there is no sign the cancer has returned.

I know I am fortunate to be alive, but I also know my story was made possible because of decades of scientific research. The enormous investment American innovators make in research and development produces stories just like mine all over the world.

But to make miracles like this happen, biomedical companies like the one that developed the experimental therapy that I take, require the predictability and fairness in U.S. patent law that reform will bring.

Patent reform will unleash new job potential. As a member of Washington state's Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, I know how important our universities are as economic engines and talent magnets. Other regions, like Boston and Silicon Valley, have harnessed the power of their schools to attract some of the brightest minds in the world.

The research and development that happens there, particularly in the area of biomedical therapies, are huge generators of jobs and innovation. Our state has an opportunity to gain from just this type of development.

To do so, it's crucial for patent-reform legislation to continue advancing through Congress and become law this year. Only by supporting American innovators will we be able to unleash the potential for jobs, innovation and lifesaving therapies that our country needs.

Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond is minority leader on the Washington State Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

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