The pharmaceutical industry is in crisis because companies are rewarded for developing new drugs that have few clinical advantages over existing ones, experts say.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Donald Light from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Joel Lexchin from York University in Toronto, say this has discouraged innovation for the past five decades.
They pointed to independent reviews that found between 85 and 90 per cent of all new drugs developed over the past 50 years have provided few benefits and considerable harms.
Has the pharmaceutical industry lost its way? Professor Light and Mr Lexchin say profits have been given priority over innovation
They said most research funds don't go towards finding breakthrough drugs but towards developing scores of minor variations that produce a steady stream of profits. Heavy promotion of these drugs can account for up to 80% of a nation’s drug spending, they add.
The duo warn that companies exaggerate research and development costs to lobby for more protection from free market competition. Yet, according to an independent analysis, the 1.3 per cent of revenues devoted to discovering new molecules compares with an estimated 25 per cent spent on promotion.
This means for every £1 spent on basic research a whopping £19 is spent on marketing.
Professor Light and Mr Lexchin said urgent changes needed to be made to make the industry focus on more cost effective and safer medicines.
They said the first step should be to stop approving so many new drugs of little therapeutic value.
'EU countries are paying billions more than necessary for drugs that provide little health gain because prices are not being set to reward new drugs in proportion to their clinical value,' they say.
They also believe that regulators should be publicly funded and that new ways of rewarding innovation should be considered.
'This approach would save countries billions in healthcare costs and produce real gains for people’s health', they conclude.
In a second paper, researchers from the London School of Economics said drug manufacturers should be made to demonstrate that their products are superior to existing treatments.
However, Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: 'We strongly disagree with the claims made in these papers.
'Medical research has always rested on iterative and gradual innovation rather than breakthrough advances which are very rare. If it were not for the incremental improvements made in the treatment of HIV, the disease would still be terminal rather than a manageable long term condition.
'The pharmaceutical industry's medicines pipeline is promising with many new treatments in development. But the discovery of medicines is an increasingly difficult process as the cost of research and development continues to rise and regulation becomes more onerous. In 2012, it costs on average over £1 billion to develop a new medicine and takes between 12 and 15 years to develop.'
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