How seriously are drug companies researching alternative medicine?
January 2, 2007 7:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I find out what percentage of pharmaceutical research is directed towards 'natural remedies' and how much is directed towards 'typical' scientific research?

We were having a discussion over dinner on the value and wisdom of "alternative medicine" and "tradicional medicine practices" vis-a-vis modern medicine. One of my friends mentioned with great emphasis that major pharmaceutical companies are actively researching these 'alternative' methods. Recall the movie called 'Medicine Man' with Sean Connery...

Can someone help me point to information on how much of major drug companies' R&D is spent on these 'alternative' methods?

posted by fsmontenegro to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's not going to be much. There's little pay off that comes from proving a herb or root etc. is actually helpful (and I think there is a lot of evidence that some are, there's also a lot of evidence that some are bunk). A drug company doesn't want to spend the money to prove a herb is safe and effective. They spend millions of dollars to show the FDA that herb X is safe and does what they claim and what happens? John Q Public can go out and grow/harvest the drug himself, or buy it on the cheap from a company that didn't have to pay for the research. That's in the case of what I consider natural remedies, stuff you can buy at GNC or Wal-Mart.

However drug companies do spend a ton of money researching natural sources for new drugs. They don't want to find a seed that eases pain or helps the eyes, they want to isolate the active compound(s) in that seed and discover its molecular formula and method of action. Then they can figure out a way to mass produce that molecule in a pure form or produce another drug that acts in the same way. Then they patent that molecule and everything they can surrounding it.
posted by Science! at 8:19 PM on January 2, 2007

The natural world is still the initial source for a lot of pharmaceutical treatments, but that's not to say, as Science! states, that the research is for "natural" treatments as such. Once an interesting source has been identified, a lot of work goes into its chemical analysis and coming up with ways to reproduce the exact same chemical in industrial quantities.

Sometimes that's just a matter of developing a process starting from natural source matter (this is the case with enoxaparine sodium, for instance, aka Lovenox) or figuring out how to make synthetic versions of the chemical compound believed to be the active component.

Note that none of it resembles Medicine Man.
posted by mikel at 8:31 PM on January 2, 2007

If what is currently a "natural remedy" becomes a subject of interest for a pharmaceutical company, or indeed science in general, wouldn't it then become by definition tradicional medicine practices?
posted by Riemann at 8:52 PM on January 2, 2007

Quite a bit, actually, but not so much in the United States. But the folks at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine might be able to give you some numbers to throw around.
posted by desuetude at 9:12 PM on January 2, 2007

NCCAM's budget is about $120 million for research while the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease will spend about $3.6 billion this year. Both agencies are a part of the NIH which has a budget of just under $30 billion. That's all listed on their respective sites. NIAID
NCCAM 120 million is a pittance, 4% of the NIH's total research budget, assuming that's where most of the 'alternative' research money goes. If that ratio held true for Pfizer they would spend about $300 million on alternative treatments. Here is a list of the NIH's institutes and centers, each link should take you to a budget page for that area. Each fiscal year should have a similarly formated budget request and a few pages in you can find a breakdown of what that area is getting and what they'll spend it on.

Wikipedia says AstraZeneca alone will spend the equivalent of the NIH's entire budget on R&D alone and that's only about half what Pfizer will spend on R&D.
posted by Science! at 10:02 PM on January 2, 2007

There's no straightforward answer to this question. At one point Botox might have been thought of as a "natural remedy", but it had to be extensively investigated using the normal processes for pharmaceuticals, and now it couldn't be conceived of as really natural.
In my own field of research, overactive bladder, both capsaicin and resinaferatoxin, are obviously "natural products", and both have been heavily researched by big pharma. That's only two investigational products from 100s though.
posted by roofus at 3:37 AM on January 3, 2007

I have a friend who recently told me that swallowing a particular hot pepper will invariably prevent his flu or cold symptoms from becoming a full-blown illness.

And yet only "[f]our antiviral medications (amantadine, rimantadine, zanamavir and oseltamivir*) have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of influenza" []. Three of them are closely related chemically, and increased resistance to them is seen in many flu viruses: "ACIP recommends that neither amantadine nor rimantadine be used for the treatment or chemoprophylaxis of influenza A in the United States because of recent data indicating widespread resistance of influenza virus to these medications".

Let's assume for a moment that my friend is right about the antibacterial properties of this hot pepper, and that a drug company could get a patent (and thus exclusive right to manufacture) a drug based on the active ingredient in this hot pepper. Why wouldn't multiple drug companies jump at the opportunity to bring a new antiviral to a market with only two other products currently being effective?

Personally, I think it's because the approximate value of my friend's anecdote in proving the medical effectiveness of hot peppers is ... oh ... zero.
posted by jepler at 6:10 AM on January 3, 2007

You also may want to consider the R and D parts separately. A huge percentage of R&D expenses at big pharma comprises phase II and phase III trials for drug approvals. The cost to actually identify candidates is much, much less.
posted by caddis at 7:47 AM on January 3, 2007

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