I started taking the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor nine years ago. I also went to a low carb Atkin's-style caveman diet at the same time, and between the Lipitor and the low carbs, it improved my bad cholesterol counts terrifically. On the other hand, Lipitor appears to hurt my short-term memory, making me more scatterbrained about daily errands. (The long-term memory I need to write seems fine, although how could I really remember if it had gone bad?) Also, ever since I started Lipitor, if I try to finish a second alcoholic drink, I get muscle aches.
So, I've been on the lookout for a a new "statin" anti-cholesterol drug. Because Lipitor is the world's #1 drug, with over $10 billion in annual sales, I figured lots of competition would be bringing forth lots of new statins. But the only one to reach the market in the last decade has been Crestor.
Gregory Cochran sends along a Wall Street Journal article that explains this slowdown in new drug development was not a fluke:
By PETER LANDERS, The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, January 10, 2006 1:11 AM PST
TOKYO -- It took two years and thousands of moldy broths for Akira Endo to find something that reduces cholesterol. His breakthrough, drawn from a mold like one that grows on oranges, turned out to be the first in a class of medicines that today bring $25 billion a year to pharmaceutical companies.
Dr. Endo's 1973 discovery of the first anticholesterol statin has been relegated to obscurity. Yet the feat spotlights a long-denigrated craft now experiencing a revival: the discovery of drugs from nature's treasure chest.
The fungal byproduct that Dr. Endo originally discovered shares the same basic chemical structure as three of the biggest-selling anticholesterol drugs: Zocor, Pravachol and Mevacor. Millions of people have taken these drugs to lower their heart-attack risk.
"Whenever we have started with the natural molecule, we have been building on three billion years of natural selection," says Sir James Black, who developed the first beta blocker for heart conditions and the antiulcer drug Tagamet at British pharmaceutical companies in the 1960s and 1970s.
For much of the past 15 years, the pharmaceutical industry was "in no mood to be sympathetic to these views," says Sir James, who is 81 and still active in drug discovery. Companies jumped on trendy areas such as synthesizing and testing thousands of artificial chemicals unknown in nature. More recently, they have tried to use the decoding of the human genome to figure out the root causes of diseases and discover cures.
For the most part, those efforts have yet to pan out. Just 20 new drugs were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005. Several top drug companies are facing flat revenue and declining profits, including Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co., the two companies that have profited most from statins.
Many drug companies scaled down or eliminated divisions focusing on natural products starting in the 1990s. In 2001, Merck closed its natural-products drug discovery department, though it still does some research in the area. In early 2003, Eli Lilly & Co. transferred its library of natural products to a small company in Albany, New York.
But now, in some corners, natural products are returning to fashion.
This problem - drug researchers growing bored with natural products - never gets discussed, mainly because it fits into no common ideological category. It's just a bad scientific fad, like Freudianism, but it has really damaged drug development (half the rate of the 1970s with oodles more money).
And this article played a role in a new idea which I had about 20 minutes ago - a very big idea. Bigger than worlds.
Well, I don't know what his new idea is, but when Greg says he's got a Big Idea, watch out ...
By the way, the WSJ article describes all the troubles Dr. Endo had in getting anyone in Japan to pay attention to his discovery of a class of drug that now generates $25 billion annually:
The scientific successes were followed by dissension among Dr. Endo and his colleagues. As he tells it, Sankyo's brass was unenthusiastic about his discovery because there was no precedent for it. They preferred to develop refinements of then-existing cholesterol drugs, he says.
I've often noticed that the truest believers in the stereotype that the Japanese aren't really creative, that they are just good at refining the big breakthroughs of others, are the Japanese themselves. I wonder how creative they'd be if they just developed some confidence in their own creativity.