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A History of Drugs, Compiled

Natallia Yaumenenka/iStock
Yale's Michael Kinch studies drug development trends from 1827 to today.
Ten drug companies control two-thirds of all drugs today, according to Michael Kinch at Yale.

A Yale scientist is in the midst of a 20-paper series studying the history of drug development in the United States. Michael Kinch, the managing director of Yale's Center for Molecular Discovery, has spent the last year creating a massive database of compounds approved by the FDA.

In case you're curious, that's 1,453 drugs. The earliest one Kinch identified was morphine, which came to the U.S. after Merck started selling it in Germany in 1827. "We first made the list," Kinch said. "Then the question became, what all has happened to these drugs? Who wrote the first publication? Who did the clinical trials on it? Then: what was the fate of these companies?"

Kinch said that today, ten drug companies control two-thirds of all drugs. Smaller groups are often acquired by bigger ones, which are scaling back internal research and development. That means the infrastructure to create new drugs, or modify existing ones, could be shrinking.

"The fundamentals," Kinch said, "are that we need to come up with new ways to be faster, more efficient, and more accurate -- more right in screening new drugs, so we can turn around a new idea that comes out of the laboratories at universities like Yale, and turn them into something that could be a medicine."

Here's another issue: Kinch said that historically, drug development has been market-driven. Oncology, for example, during the 1990s, was seen as non-lucrative. "Nowadays," Kinch said, "the exact opposite is happening. Everybody is flocking into oncology. There are certain interesting questions. Cardiovascular diseases, which remain the number one cause of morbidity and mortality, are really not proportionally being represented by pharmaceutical companies." 

The articles are scheduled to be published over the next year in the journal Drug Discovery Today.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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