I've heard many times the claim that drug companies purposely make treatments and avoid selling/researching cures instead. Are there any documented cases of this behavior happening or any concrete reason to believe this is the case?

  • The running joke I hear from the doctors I work with is that the best customer for a drug company is one that spends a lot of money maintaining the conditions that they have. Statins have been a huge profit center for drug companies because the customer must be on statins for the rest of their lives, and many people have high enough cholesterol to warrant their use. But is that 'avoiding a cure' or 'striking gold because everyone has to buy your product forever and ever'?
    – mmr
    May 13, 2011 at 22:27
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    Excellent question. Very keen to see how this one plays out. I have my suspicions. Healthy Skepticism is an Australian group that do great work in this area and their site my be useful for those answering this question. The 'Adwatch' section of the site is particularly good. Esomeprazole vs Omeprazole is a great example of the a drug company maintaining patent control, by essentially, doing nothing.
    – user2466
    May 14, 2011 at 2:24
  • sigh yet another case where even basic understanding of economics would help (obviously beyond the abilities of Big Pharma haters). If someone has an idea of how to cure disease X, that knowledge is worth a lot of money. If their company is currently invested in treating symptoms of that same disease and this thus not interested in funding the cure itself, you (the guy with the knowledge) can always go work for another company that doesn't have such considerations (doesn't have conflicting drug), or government research where you still get paid $$$ from the patent.
    – user5341
    May 16, 2011 at 14:12
  • @DVK-- what about a patent thicket, where the first drug company invests in patents to block other companies or individuals from doing exactly what you're describing? What this question needs is at least one empirical example of a drug company releasing a product that's against their 'best interests' (ie, the profit motive), or a company blocking a drug because it would interfere with one of their existing products. Of course, different companies are different, but these examples would help explain a complex situation. Everything else is just speculation.
    – mmr
    May 16, 2011 at 15:03

1 Answer 1


I apologize if this sounds a little rude, but the question does not really make much sense.

There is no possibility to "avoid cures", for many reasons. One being that the drug development pipeline takes too long and is too inefficient to let it go when finally a good product is obtained (see graph).

Most of the research funding comes from Government agencies, not pharmaceutical companies. The basic research to find the mechanisms of disease and thus allowing the developing of new drugs are done in Universities/Research Institutes. Big pharma companies may run (usually in cooperation with universities) large-scale chemical compounds testing and fund some pre-clinical studies and the clinical trials (again, usually in collaboration with universities/hospitals).

It is plausible that a company may delay the release of a new drug to maximize the revenue of an older generation drug, but it is impossible for them to block the research in other places. So, if they have a magic cure, they will try to sell it as fast as they can. If not, the drug may be found by some other company or even may be published by an academic institution, preventing the use of any patent.

Budget data:

US Pharma Industry R&D spending anual budget:

  • Estimated by the companies: ~38 B
  • Estimated by the NSF (National Science Foundation): ~15 B.

The difference stems mostly on research performed outside the US and post-market follow up of drugs. Source: Congressional Budget Office 2006.

Of this budget, Canadian data suggest that approximately 15-20% is spent on basic research (i.e., drug discovery), 50-60% in preclinical and clinical trials and 20% in bioavailability and post-market (phase IV) studies. Source: Canadian Patented Medicine Prices Review Board Annual Report 2009. US-based pharma companies may spend close to 80% in clinical research. Source: Applied Clinical Trials.

Most importantly, many of the drugs that have appeared in the market derive from Government-funded research. In the last two decades, universities and research institutes have been patenting its own research and have reached licensig agreements with the pharma industry. There is a very good article about this issue: Stevens et al, N Engl J Med 2011; 364:535-541

US Government annual budget:*

.* It does not include State budgets, Senator's discretional budgets or smaller program budgets scattered in diverse departments.
.** Only a portion is dedicated to research.
.* From that, a portion is dedicated to bionanotechnology. The rest may not be relevant.

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    @mmr That's pharma industries spending. It does not only includes the actual reagents for research. Furthermore, much of that money is invested, as I said above, in the clinical trials. For example, plese refer to the Canadian Patented Medicine Prices Review Board Annual Report 2009: pmprb-cepmb.gc.ca/english/view.asp?x=1340&mid=1196
    – Aleadam
    May 13, 2011 at 22:55
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    DOD even has a breast cancer research program: cdmrp.army.mil/bcrp/default.shtml
    – Aleadam
    May 13, 2011 at 22:59
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    @mmr I gave you the Canadian link because it is what I found right now. Please, take it as an example of pharma spending. I do not think there is any number to show how much is spent in drug development, just because the grants may include different aims and it will be impossible to sum partial uses. Besides that, target validation is also part of drug R&D
    – Aleadam
    May 13, 2011 at 23:17
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    We expect answers to provide references for all significant claims they make. Please add appropriate references to your answer.
    – Mad Scientist
    May 14, 2011 at 0:33
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    @Fabian I am learning the methodology as I go. I'm new here and I'm mostly used to stackoverflow, where you're answer is right or wrong depending if your code works or not. No need for citations there. Most of what I know is from talking to higher NIH officials and pharma executives in different meetings. Thus, I do not have all the sources at hand (is mostly "personal communication"). I understand the need for the sources here, so I tried to gather some information together to substantiate my answer. I hope this is now up to skeptics.SE standards.
    – Aleadam
    May 14, 2011 at 3:46

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