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Drugs: To Use or Not to Use

During each of the past ten years the pharmaceutical industry has produced an average of approximately 400 new products. In the most recent year of record, 1957, the number is said to have been precisely 400, and 51 of these were single new chemicals. Many of the agents are produced in refined form in amounts that are absurdly small in relation to the bulk of the crude materials from which they are processed. Some typical yields of useful and familiar materials of different sorts are shown in Table 1. Add to the comparisons afforded in this table the fact that many entirely synthetic compounds are obtained through even more exhausting and expensive manipulations than are required in refining crude materials; and consider in addition the huge sums expended in research and promotion in order to make available, and to bring into the physician’s awareness, the packaged drugs awaiting his prescription — think of these things and it will easily be realized that the pharmaceutical manufacturers are obliged to interest themselves vitally in what it is that makes a new product acceptable to the doctor. To supply one observer’s version of what the requirements are, is the purpose of this presentation.

Table 1. Refined Yields From Crude Materials



Recovery per 1,000,000 parts of crude material

Copper Ore


Magnesium Sea water


Uranium Ore


Reserpine Plant root


Typical antibiotic Fermentation broth


Vitamin B12 Fermentation broth


Source Of The Drug

I should say that if the new drug proposed for your use is, or is derived from, an old folk remedy the chances are good that it is worth paying attention to — not trying at once, willy-nilly, but at least watching to the extent of asking to see the records of its unbiased and controlled trials in specialized clinics. For the record of such agents is impressive, as is shown in the listing in Table 2 of valuable drugs obtained from folk medicine.

Table 2. Drugs Derived From Folk Medicine
atropine ergonovine pilocarpine
caffeine ergotamine quinidine
cocaine ipecac quinine
codeine iron salts reserpine
colchicine morphine salicylates
digitalis papaverine scopolamine
emetine physostigmine theophylline
ephedrine tubocurarine

If a drug is offered because it has been discovered by search among the chemically close relatives of an active drug for another one of the same sort, you will be well advised to be hesitant in accepting it until full trials have been made by others better placed for such trials than yourself. Good drugs have often been developed through such approaches admittedly, but since these searches are usually begun merely to turn up for competitive reasons another drug as good as the one of established value, there is no obligation to believe a priori that the new agent is better than the old. It may be just as good and no more toxic, and this in itself may sometimes assure it a place in the armamentarium since there are instances in which there is advantage in having two strings to one’s bow — but let the qualified investigators determine the facts of the case while you continue to use the agent whose worth you know. Now, if the new drug has been evolved in attempting to improve an original compound through chemical modification, I should advise again to delay transferring patients to it until its clinical status has been proved by investigators qualified to make the controlled trials. There is a tendency among sales representatives of some pharmaceutical houses to maintain that certain chemical configurations reliably confer specific pharmacologic attributes upon compounds in which they are incorporated. But the actual fact is that invariability and predictability have not yet been achieved in this field of structure-activity relationships. One wants to know in each instance, first, whether the chemical configuration in question has really been shown by disinterested investigators to possess the attributes claimed for it; second, whether the structure to which it has been attached is one that is likely thereby to have the desired pharmacologic action conferred upon it or strengthened in it; and, third, whether the attachment has been made at a point that will potentiate or may actually weaken and possibly even pervert the action of the basic structure. These things the individual practitioner surely will not know.

Publish date: 1959

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