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Quantifying 20 Years of Pharmaceutical Innovation

Is there a way to quantify early drug discovery productivity to improve pharmaceutical innovation?

Pharmaceutical innovation is dependent upon a productive development pipeline. In recent years, attention has been drawn to the decline in the number of approved drugs reaching the market. These analyses have focused on the measurable milestones associated with drug development. However, a reliable assessment of how research is feeding into drug development is more difficult.

Pharmaceutical Innovation: measuring compound to target productivity.
Image credit: Nature Chemical Biology 6, 566 – 567 (2010)

As a proxy for research outcome, the number of compounds that have either been discussed in a publication or patented could be analyzed. Recently, Southan et al. used this standard to perform a database analysis to determine compound output in the last 20 years.1 They analyzed the cumulative number of compounds published over the last 20 years and the diversity of the protein targets.

They found the following:

  • There are almost 100,000 distinct chemical entities published in the last 20 years.
  • There were nearly 4000 protein targets associated with the compounds.
  • Compound output increased until 2005, then decreased by 35% in 2012.
  • The number of protein targets that compounds are directed toward shows a plateau, but does not show a decrease.

Measuring compound output as a proxy for early pharmaceutical innovation demonstrates, from a different perspective, the challenges the life sciences industry are currently facing. Tightening budgets due to decreased government funding and the patent cliff are reducing R&D efforts. Alternatively, the decrease in compound output may be a result of increasing stringency standards that have streamlined compound selection enabling the right compound to be selected more quickly.

Analyzing productivity early in the pipeline can be difficult to assess. However analysis of pharmaceutical innovation can yield insights into the industry that will allow for improvements and innovation. This may include moving away from a target based discovery platform and approaching therapeutics from a different perspective – perhaps a top-down systems approach, genomic approaches, or even cell therapy approaches will bring a new perspective to pharmaceutical innovation.

  1. Southan, C., Varkonyi, P., Boppana, K., Jagarlapudi, S.A.R.P., Muresan, S. 2013. Tracking 20 years of compound-to-target output from literature and patents. PLoS One. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0077142