Novartis has suffered a major setback in India after a court rejected a challenge by the Swiss drugmaker to change the country’s patent laws applicable to its anti-cancer drug Glivec.

The court in Chennai has rejected the challenge, saying that it had no jurisdiction on whether patent laws in India comply with intellectual property rules set by the World Trade Organisation. Novartis is testing India's new patent protection regime that was established two years ago which differs from other countries in that it only protects completely new compounds that were discovered after 1995. Gleevec/Glivec (imatinib) falls foul of this clause because its active ingredient is deemed to be a modification of an existing compound.

At time of writing, the Basel-headquarterted firm had yet to make an official comment on the decision but observers believe that Novartis is unlikely to appeal the decision. The case, a high-profile one, has seen Novartis complain that the Indian patent system stifles innovation but its stance has been criticised by a number of government and indeed non-government organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres.

In April, India’s Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss urged Novartis to drop the case, saying that any decision in the Swiss company’s favour could have the knock-on effect of choking the supply of affordable drugs in India, adding that the Indian government could follow the Thailand example and overrule existing patents through compulsory licences.