2 The life sciences sector – some historical perspectives
2.1 Early beginnings – From magic to medicine
The life sciences sector, and its precursor the pharmaceutical industry, has a long and rich history. Pharmaceuticals, which are defined as compounds manufactured for use as medicinal drugs (remedies), date back to 2735 BC and the Chinese Dynasty of Shen Nung. Their development can be traced through ancient Hindu, Egyptian and Mediterranean civilisations. The word ‘pharmaceutical’ originates from the Greek pharmakon, meaning ‘drug’. In this early period, responsibility for healing, remedy and repair of human health rested with a wide range of practitioners. They ranged from the spiritual to the secular, using an equally wide range of potions from mystic brews to the natural compounds that underpin many of today's modern medicines.
Pharmaceutical practice improved markedly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the appearance of well-defined instructions for preparing drugs in terms of both the required constituents and the concentrations. This activity centred mainly on Basel in the 1500s and London in the 1600s, two centres that are still home to some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
The so-called modern pharmaceutical industry dates back to the nineteenth century with the discovery of manufactured medicinal compounds, which replaced herbal medicines. In the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, pharmaceutical companies primarily produced and marketed. They did little research, leaving that to individual scientists or small groups of researchers (Ganellin, 1989). The German chemist Felix Hoffman (1868–1946) is often regarded as the leader of this phase of the industry. In 1897 he discovered a way of adding a cluster of two extra carbon and five extra hydrogen atoms to a substance extracted from willow bark. The result was named acetylsalicylic acid, known by most people today as ‘aspirin’.
Advances in pharmaceutical research characteristically involve scientists, working as individuals or more often in teams, using state-of-the-art technology in order to push the frontier further. Yet the three fundamentals of such research remain as true today as they did in Hoffman's time: (1) ‘discovery’ or pushing the frontier of knowledge to identify potential remedies or treatments; (2) determining more precisely the dosage to be delivered to the target tissue while minimising undesirable side-effects; and (3) ‘Mailing’, to eliminate or reduce undesirable side-effects.
You should now read ‘The global pharmaceutical industry – a case study’ by Sarah Holland and Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, which is attached as a pdf document below (click the link below to open; PDF, 0.3MB, 17 pages). This provides a useful summary of the history of the sector and its current situation. Read it with the objective of identifying the problems and limitations associated with the recent history of the sector.