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Birth of a drug
Birth of a drug

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1 The chemical industry

The chemical industry is one of the major contributors to the economies of advanced industrial nations.

The importance of organic chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry becomes apparent in the light of the fact that in the UK alone some £2.2b was spent in 1997 on research and development. Literally thousands of different compounds have to be synthesised and tested in the search for the one that will prove to be a successful and valuable therapeutic agent. As a result, the average cost of developing a new drug is now around £350m. And because of the increasingly stringent safety requirements of the regulatory authorities, the development time has risen from an average of three years in 1960 to 12–15 years today. Given that the patent life of any new drug is around 20 years, this leaves a relatively short time for the pharmaceutical company to recoup its investment. So the stakes are high; but equally, the rewards are great. The worldwide sales of so-called ‘ethical pharmaceutical products’ in 1998 exceeded £150b. Table 1 shows the ten most prescribed drugs in the USA, with all of them exceeding annual sales of £1b. In contrast, the top-selling drug in 1989, Glaxo's Zantac, only managed worldwide sales of £900m!

Table 1: The top ten most prescribed drugs in the US (1998)
Brand NameGeneric NameCompanyTreatment/UseSales/£m yr−1
ZocorsimvastatinMerckcholesterol lowering2470
ProzacfluoxetineEli Lilleydepression1750
LipitoratorvastatinWarner–Lambertcholesterol lowering1375
PaxilparoxetineSmithKline Beechamdepression1100
Augmentinamoxicillin/potassium clavulanateSmithKline Beechamantibiotic1000