New drug discovery

So a few minutes ago, I read yet another criticism of “Big Pharma” for not curing some disease – this time Diabetes – because there’s more money in maintenance drugs than in cures.

And every time I read something like that, I think it is stupid, but this time I am positioned to explain why, because I used to work for the worlds biggest insulin manufacturer.

So why? Why didn’t they create a cure for Diabetes while I was there?

First up: Making medicine is no joke. They’re not juggling geese in those labs, they are hard at work doing research, expensive research, and yet they don’t make new medicines very often because it is difficult.

How hard?

Your odds of discovering a new medicine that makes it to the market, during your entire career in medicine discovery, are less than 1%.

Second: Inventing medicine is expensive. The nice round number we used to use back when I was still working pharma was $1 billion from “Drug idea” to “Drug on the market.” 

When you start out, you still don’t know whether your drug will work. You’re just going to have start pouring out money and hope, hope, hope that the thing that comes out in the other end is an approved drug, because you’re not getting any of that money back except through sales. So the idea that $500 million into the process, they stop and check whether their new molecule is a cure instead of maintenance – and then toss it – you are frankly mad. At half a billion into the hole, we would be jubilant to find out that we have a cure.

Third (And this is the one that made me decide to write this to start with): INSULIN DOESN’T MAKE ANY MONEY. HOW can you possibly believe that they’re hiding the “unprofitable” cure to sell the “profitable” maintenance when the maintenance isn’t profitable. If you follow the money upchain from your pharmacy, through the import company, to the factory, to the owner, to the holding company, to the … oh wait what’s that? It turns out Novo Nordisk, the worlds biggest insulin producer is primarily owned by the Novv Nordisk Foundation, a non-profit organization who re-invests everything into grants and research? So who, exactly, are we blaming for being greedy again? Because having worked for them, I can promise you: Novo Nordisk is a very generous company who pays a very competitive salary, and any money left over goes into research.


The reason they’re not inventing the cure for X is that they’re trying to invent the cure for X but there are no guarantees. Drugs are expensive, nobody can afford to suppress anything. “Greed” is a terrible motive to assign a non-profit.

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