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History of medicine

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The development of a modern medicine

The biopharmaceutical industry is constantly developing new medicines. Pharmaceutical companies invested £5bn in Research and Development (R&D)1. R&D spending by the UK pharmaceutical industry is much higher than that of other industries.

Discovering new medicines

Teams of chemists, pharmacologists and biologists search for molecules with medicinal properties. Molecular structures are altered to optimise activity and minimise unwanted side effects.

A technique called high-throughput screening has automated many of the initial tests and pharmaceutical laboratories may now screen thousands of compounds per week. Research chemists can use computers to model designer molecules and using the latest equipment, large pharmaceutical companies may synthesise and screen 300,000 molecules a year.

At this pre-clinical development phase, additional tests are carried out. These include animal tests to check that the chemical compound is not poisonous and chemical tests to show that it is stable enough to be used as a medicine. Promising medicines then pass on to the clinical development phase.

Robots used for screening compounds

A massive task

For every new medicine that passes all the trials over 5,000 compounds need to be screened. On average it takes an amazing eleven years for a medicine to go from starting phase I trial to submitting for regulatory approval2. In 2024, over 9000 medicines were reported to be in development for the treatment of diseases.

When accounting for the R&D costs of medicines that fail, it costs an average of $1.2-1.7bn to develop a medicine that is approved for use. When the additional cost of capital is accounted for, this average cost per single approved medicine rises to $2.4-3.2bn3.


Formulating medicines

Find out about the different ways of delivering a medicine through this animation.