The drugs don’t work

Pfizer's decision this year to close its research facility in Sandwich, Kent, surprised few who had been following the slump in the pharmaceutical industry.

Globally, more than 200,000 pharma jobs have been lost in the past three years. Just 21 new drugs were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2010, despite the billions invested in research. What has gone wrong? Innovation has been squeezed from the sector.

James Black, who won a Nobel Prize for developing beta blockers, once said: "The most fruitful basis of the discovery of a new drug is to start with an old drug." Many companies have focused on making small chemical changes to known compounds just to establish a market presence in
the most lucrative diseases.

As chemists realised that atoms could be combined into an almost infinite repertoire of chemicals, instead of exploring new space, they established rules geared towards investigating the properties of known drugs most conducive to allowing a chemical to distribute and survive within the body. Small pharmaceutical and biotech companies are more likely to make progress now.

Their success, however, will be thwarted until Big Pharma's big brothers - the banks - are broken up into nimble funding institutions capable of supporting the growth of new paradigms in drug discovery.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special