Here's hoping that the G.D. Searle & Co. pharmaceutical firm has started a trend.

A few months ago, Searle officials announced a policy of offering heart drugs free of charge to the poor.Now Searle is receiving the sincerest form of flattery from a San Francisco company, Genentech Inc., which says it will give free doses of its genetically engineered heart-attack drug to patients who can't afford the high price tag.

"Our goal . . . is to see that Activase is not denied to heart-attack patients based solely on their ability to pay," said Genentech's president, Kirk Raab. The company will replace, without cost, vials of Activase administered by hospitals to patients who earn less than $25,000 and have no insurance.

Human nature being what it is, there probably is more than altruism at work here. "It is a genuine attempt to take some of the pressure off the company with regard to its aggressive pricing of the product, which costs $2,200 per dose," one industry analyst told the San Francisco Examiner.

Sales have been sluggish as well, according to Scripps Howard News Service, partly because of questions about Activase's effectiveness compared with a cheaper drug known as streptokinase.

But whatever public-relations or marketing considerations may have moved Genentech, they don't negate the fact that a drug of proven worth will be more accessible to patients who couldn't afford it before.

The "medically indigent" - people who have no health insurance - number several million across the country. Many are poor or unemployed, while others are working at jobs that offer no significant health benefits.

Private health-care companies ought to help out. Taxpayer-financed medical coverage is a big source of income for these firms; in response, they ought to assist taxpayers in easing the plight of the medically indigent.

Searle and Genentech understand. Let's hope that more companies catch on soon.