Summary of Blockbuster Drugs

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Dr. Jie Jack Li offers a fascinating study of the processes and personalities behind “blockbuster drug” – medications with annual sales of more than $1 billion, such as Prilosec, Oxycontin, Claritin and Heparin. He opens with the industry’s eight-year hunt for the first blockbuster – the 1986 ulcer treatment Tagamet – and traces the development of best-selling allergy drugs, blood thinners, acid-blockers and painkillers. Though Li sketches marketing strategies and provides cost and revenue data, his detailed, well-researched account is not aimed at the general business reader. He focuses on science, on the research efforts that produce such drugs and on each drug’s chemical “mechanism of action.” The science-shy or those people who are not up on pharmaceutical jargon may struggle to penetrate the terminology. However, getAbsract recommends this history of the “golden era of drug development” to executives with science backgrounds, as well as to industrial pharmacologists and chemists. Li’s insights will also interest investors and entrepreneurs involved with or curious about the profit-and-loss cycles and scientific dynamics of big pharma.

About the Author

Dr. Jie Jack Li teaches organic chemistry and the history of drug discovery at the University of San Francisco. He also wrote Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor: The Human Stories Behind the Drugs We Use; Triumph of the Heart: The Story of Statins; and Drug Discovery: Practices, Processes and Perspectives with E.J. Corey.



The “Golden Age”

The last half of the 20th century was a peak period for the pharmaceutical industry, an era when “blockbuster drugs” elevated corporate bottom lines and improved the lives of millions of patients. Blockbusters – drugs with more than $1 billion in annual sales – typically offer safe, effective treatments for common conditions such as ulcers, hypertension, high cholesterol, pain, allergies and depression. The first decade of the 21st century was not as successful for the industry. Older drugs’ patents are lapsing, and pharma companies have fewer new drugs in the pipeline.

Ulcers in the Blockbuster Era

The ulcer treatment Tagamet (cimetidine) was the first blockbuster drug, earning more than $1 billion in 1986. Smith, Kline & French, then a relatively obscure US firm, introduced Tagamet to the United Kingdom market in 1976 and to the US in 1977. By the end of the 1970s, Tagamet had raked in $14 billion in sales from 100-plus countries; it made SK&F into a top drug company.

Nobel laureate James W. Black directed the search for Tagamet. Black’s earlier prizewinning research led to the development of widely used beta-blocker heart medications...

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