A revolution in drug discoveryBMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7261.581 (Published 09 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:581
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I was surprised by the optimistic tone of your main editorial on 9
September which gave the impression that cascades of new drugs are about
to be discovered by the linked techniques of computer-aided drug design
(CADD), combinatorial chemistry (CC) and high throughput screening (HTS).
The reality is different (1). The rate of introduction of new
chemical entities to the pharmaceutical market is currently lower than at
any time since the Second World War. While there have been a few
successes for CADD/CC/HTS techniques, most companies, in spite of massive
investment, have failed to generate a single useful lead (2). One senior
executive has expressed the view that the new techniques may be generating
bigger haystacks as opposed to more needles (3). The largest companies
are not generating enough novel drugs to sustain them, a fact which has
driven the recent spate of mergers. The costs per successful molecule
have rocketed. And, contrary to the impression given in the editorial,
recent historical studies by David Healey clearly demonstrate that the
delay between chemical synthesis and successful marketing was far shorter
in the 1950s and 1960s than the most optimistic predictions of your
editorial (4). The methods dismissed as “archaic” by your editorial
writers did deliver a long series of important therapeutic advances. It
will be interesting to see whether the current failures of the new
techniques are mere teething troubles or whether they are indicators of
fundamental flaws in the understanding of biological complexity (1).
D. F. Horrobin DPhil, BM BCh.
1. Horrobin DF. Innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. J Roy Soc Med
2000; 93: 341-345.
2. Lahana R. How many leads from HTS? Drug Discovery Today 1999; 4:
3. Loftus P. Quoted in Brown P. Has R&D failed the
pharmaceutical industry? Scrip Magazine 1994; July/August: 3-4.
4. Healey D. The Psychopharmacologists III. London, Arnold: 2000.
Competing interests: No competing interests