Page last updated at 04:56 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 05:56 UK

'What have drugs companies done for us?'

By Dr Richard Barker,
Director General of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

Pill mixture
Do we take the range of drugs on offer 'for granted?'

There is a wonderful moment in the Monty Python's Life of Brian when Reg, the leader of the People's Front of Judea, played by John Cleese, asks disparagingly: "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

From his facial expression and his dismissive tone, it is clear Reg is less than enamoured with the Romans' contribution to society in the Holy Land, and is unprepared for the enthusiastic response he gets from his freedom-fighters.

"Well, there's the aqueduct," says one. "And the sanitation," says another. "And the roads," pipes a third. The list goes on until the increasingly angry Reg blows a gasket and orders his masked men to "Shut up!"

An image of Reg pops into my mind when I think about how people envisage the research-based pharmaceutical industry.

Unsung heroes

People seem to take for granted the antibiotics that cure infection, the anti-ulcer pills that prevent the need for stomach operations and the wide range of medicines that reduce the risk of heart attacks.

Finding new medicines is painstaking work; investigation into 5,000 compounds is likely to yield just one successful medicine, and the journey from first discovery to bringing a medicine to market takes between 10 and 12 years, at an estimated cost of £500m.

At the core of our industry are the unsung heroes who carry out this work - the scientists and researchers who very strongly believe they are on a mission to address human disease.

Along with other industries we have done some things wrong, but we have also done some things spectacularly right

I would be astonished if they do not go into work everyday being motivated by the desire to bring cures to mankind.

You can understand why they, and for that matter I, get rather frustrated when the industry to which we belong is panned as just making profit out of sickness.

Personally, I believe we are living in a very fortunate age. Since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, enormous advances have been made in terms of improving public health.

Europeans born today can expect to live 30 years longer than a century ago. I grant that you that there are many factors which have led to this - sanitation and better roads among them!

But the pharmaceutical industry, the people who discover and make medicines, has played its part.


Medicines have largely eradicated previously life-threatening diseases, such as smallpox, syphilis, diphtheria and polio.

Antibiotics and vaccines have contributed to the effective treatment, prevention or, in some cases, near-eradication of influenza, pneumonia, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis and measles.

Pharmaceutical companies are striving to improve treatment of high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, osteoporosis, Parkinson's disease, haemophilia, cancer and HIV/Aids.

Monty Python's Life of Brian
Do drug companies suffer the same fate as the Romans in Monty Python's 'Life of Brian'?

Many of these advances target the biggest killers in Europe, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Yes, along with other industries we have done some things wrong, but we have also done some things spectacularly right.

Take statins for instance, which are medicines that lower cholesterol. They are widely prescribed in the UK and are credited with saving 10,000 lives a year in England alone.

In the UK, we have a world-class pharmaceutical industry - a fifth of the world's leading 100 medicines have been discovered and developed here - and that industry needs our continuing support.

And don't forget the pharmaceutical industry's contribution to the economy.

Apart from being one of the key knowledge-based industries on which the future of the UK's financial success will be based, we keep up 250,000 jobs and generated £14.6bn of exports in 2007 - the second highest in the European Union.

So, the next time you reach into your medicine cabinet, please do spare a thought for the people who have made it their life's work to bring relief where there is pain and who sometimes make the difference between a painful death and life itself.

Is the pharmaceutical industry given an unfairly hard time, or does it focus too much on making profit out of the medicines we need to make us well?

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