Who Discovers New Drugs?

From 1997 to 2005 252 drugs were approved by the FDA. In a summary of a paper in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline blog) summarizes where most of the drug discoveries come from:

  • 58% from pharmaceutical companies
  • 18% from biotech companies
  • 16% from universities, transferred to biotech
  • 8% from universities, transferred to pharma.

Dr. Lowe notes that it is good to have some “numbers to point to I next run into someone who tries to tell me that all drugs are found with NIH grants, and that drug companies hardly do any research. (I know that this sounds like the most ridiculous strawman, but believe me, there are people – who regard themselves as intelligent and informed – who believe this passionately, in nearly those exact words).”

Comments (11)

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  1. Lisa says:

    You mean the drug companies actually contribute something to society? That will be news over at the Nation and in other left wing circles.

  2. Thanks, Linda. I always appreciate your info. Do you have a white paper on this subject? I like to link your info. to my healthcare reform website.

  3. Tom H. says:

    This is good information. It needs wider distribution.

  4. John Goodman says:

    Here’s Megan McArdle (Atlantic Monthly) on the subject:

  5. Devon Herrick says:

    I have a friend that does drug research. Compounds are screened by the hundreds, time after time for different target conditions, in the search for the desired therapeutic effect. When one of these compounds finally makes it to market as a drug approved for a specific condition, it is easy for someone to say “oh, that compound was discovered by a university lab.” Just isolating a compound for which there are no known uses is basic research. Identifying the way the compound interacts in the body and finding a use for it takes years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

  6. Lee says:

    Doesn’t this ignore the sources of funding for these various research groups? As I see in another article, we’ve been funding Domino’s pizza for some time now. In addition, it ignores how income generated by the products is later redistributed through the market. That is to say, there aren’t many university researchers with houses in the Hamptons. I suppose the question I would like to pose is that while this presents us with a case in which non-government research has succeeded, isn’t the focus of that research largely skewed by government interventions? Not to mention that much of the research that goes into drug discovery goes into discovering the targets; the people responsible for that research are not compensated.

  7. Linda Gorman says:

    Lee, are you saying that chemists at big companies volunteer their services?

    The median salary for a full professor at a Ph.D. granting school was $120,000 in 2008 as reported by the American Chemical Society. Median pay for PhD industrial chemists was about $115,000.

  8. artk says:

    This is rather simplistic misreading of the actual blog entry and the Nature article. First, the vast majority of drugs are highly derivative, simply ways to extend the patent on existing drugs. Prilosec and Nexium are good examples; one’s a minor variation of the other. One particularly painful trade of mine was a biotech company whose great drug innovation was a time release version of Gabapentin, which has been generic for decades. The list goes on. The Nature states that 1/3 of truly innovative drugs were developed in University research. Many biotech startups are companies founded by University researchers who commercialize their research. In addition, the research underpinnings for most of modern medicine were developed in universities, which are government funded. You want proof, go through the list of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Medicine, the vast majority of work performed to earn those prizes were developed in government funded research, usually in a university setting. If you want medicine to look the same in 20 years, stop government funded research today.

  9. Linda Gorman says:

    ark–universities and drug companies specialize in different parts of the drug production process. In some cases drug companies pay university researchers to do specialist work. Patients need the whole process.

    As Dr. Lowe points out, it is fashionable in certain quarters to pretend that universities do everything.

    The Wikipedia article on penicillin is a case in point. The breakthroughs that Pfizer made are ignored. Somehow, vast quantities of the stuff miraculously appeared. As the article tells it “…the results of fermentation research on corn steep liquor at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory at Peoria, Illinois, allowed the United States to produce 2.3 million doses in time for the invasion of Normandy…”

  10. artk says:

    Linda, comparing Pfizer’s development of a production technique to the discovery of penicillin is like comparing a driver who gets a performer to a concert with the actual performance. The real value is in invention, not manufacturing, that’s why generics are so inexpensive.

  11. Linda Gorman says:

    artk–are you really claiming that manufacturers don’t invent new things of value?

    Or that the low price of generics is not the result of a) known structure, b) known production processes, and c) a heavily discounted FDA approval process?