Skip to content

Help and information

This topic takes on average 55 minutes to read.

There are a number of interactive features in this resource:

Topic last updated: 24 Nov 2021
    • Ico Chemistry Chemistry
    • Ico Science Science
    • 16+
    • 55

Making medicines

  of  4

Creating a medicine

Creating a medicine

New medicines are needed to treat disease, to prevent people getting a disease, to improve people's health and wellbeing and to save lives.

Most new medicines are developed and manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry. Researching, developing and manufacturing medicines contributes to the health of the economy through exports and providing a wide range of interesting, well paid, jobs.

It takes about 12 years to discover, develop and test a new medicine. It is not a straightforward process and many projects fail for one reason or another - the medicine may not work as well as expected, or the side effects are too great - it is a high risk business. However when everything goes well the outcome for patients is a new medicine which might treat a disease, supress it's symptoms or prevent it taking hold.

Some projects fail because the basic science didn't work out, or the chemists weren't able to make a new molecule that had all the right properties. Other projects might fail because of unexpected side effects once large numbers of patients are being treated. It is important to identify potential problems as early as possible in the process because research and development is very expensive, particularly once clinical trials start. It currently costs about £1.15 billion to create a new medicine.

Where do scientists get their ideas for new medicines?

Ideas for new medicines come from all sorts of places. Sometimes there is a traditional plant that has been used to treat a disease. Identifying why this plant works and what the actual substance is that is affecting the disease is one source of new medicines. Or there may be an existing way of treating a disease which could be improved - for example existing medicines might need to be taken several times a day, or may not work for all people. But mainly it is knowledge of how the body works, what proteins it makes, and how they work, which leads to discovery of new medicines. Increasingly knowledge about human genes help scientists come up with ideas of how to treat a disease.

Where do the scientists work?

Scientists who discover new medicines might work in universities, in research labs run by charities or research councils, in small biotechnology companies or in the laboratories of large pharmaceutical companies. However, wherever they work, they are aiming for the same thing - to discover medicines to improve the health of patients.

Why do so few medicines make it to the market?

Most medicines being developed by pharmaceutical companies never make it through the research and development process to become marketed medicines.

There are many reasons for this. Some are found to be toxic when given to animals, or to have too many side effects when taken by volunteers or patients. Others just don't work as well as had been expected. New medicines are expensive because of the high cost of development and the high likelihood of failure.

For every 25,000 chemical compounds tested, on average 25 of these will have gone into clinical trials and five received approval for marketing. And only one will make enough money to pay for its development.