Fewer new drugs despite rise in funding: Study

Too much focus on getting published in top journals and red tape among reasons cited

MIAMI • More money is being spent on medical research but fewer new drugs are being approved and people are not living much longer than they did in the 1960s, according to a United States study just published.

Among the multiple reasons suspected for the stall in medical progress: too much focus on getting published in prestigious journals and excessive red tape and regulation, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We are spending more money now just to get the same results we always have and this is going to keep happening if we don't fix things," said co-author Arturo Casadevall, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study published on Monday, is based on analysis of funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as the number of scientific studies being published, life expectancy and the number of new drug approvals - or New Molecular Entities approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The study found that the number of scientists in the US has increased more than nine times since 1965 and the NIH budget has increased fourfold to about US$30 billion (S$42 billion) this year.

Meanwhile, the number of new drugs approved by the FDA has about doubled, and life expectancy has stayed relatively constant, gaining about two months a year in the past half-century.

"There is something wrong in the process, but there are no simple answers," said co-author Anthony Bowen, a visiting scholar at the Hopkins school of health. "It may be a confluence of factors that are causing us not to be getting more bang for our buck," Mr Bowen added.

For instance, researchers today must go through lengthy consent processes for taking blood samples, and must catalogue each trip to a conference for government oversight, he said.

Such tasks "add to the non-scientific burdens on scientists who could otherwise spend more time at the bench", said the study.

Others argue that modern medical challenges are more complex than ever, and finding cures simply takes more time and effort.

Prof Casadevall said many of the best drugs used today were developed decades ago, including insulin for diabetes and beta-blockers for cardiac conditions.

But a part of the problem also appears to come down to the culture of medical research today, according to the researchers. Prof Casadevall and Mr Bowen said there are "perverse" incentives for researchers to oversimplify their studies so that they can get published in top medical journals.

A separate study has shown that more than US$28 billion in public and private funds is spent yearly on research that cannot be reproduced, making up about half of the content of contemporary scientific journals.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'Fewer new drugs despite rise in funding: Study'. Print Edition | Subscribe