SECOND OPINION

How many new drugs rely on government-funded science? All of them

There’s public science in every single new drug. That was the surprising answer to a U.S. senator’s question about how government-funded research is benefitting citizens. But it took a year to come up with the numbers.

Data from 2 million scientific papers was used to show critical role of public funds in developing new drugs

A study of 2 million scientific documents found that every new drug produced in the United States has government funding behind it. (9dream studio/Shutterstock)

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


There's public science in every single new drug. That was the surprising answer to a U.S. senator's question about how government-funded research is benefitting citizens. But it took a year to come up with the numbers.

It all started last June when Bentley University professor Fred Ledley and his colleagues in Massachusetts were watching a senate budget hearing that was considering cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the major medical science funding agency in the U.S.

When NIH director Francis Collins was asked how publicly-funded science was leading to new drugs, he couldn't give a detailed answer. That's when Ledley realized there was a data gap. Ledley also knew that with modern data mining tools his team could finally answer that question.

"This couldn't have been done five years ago," Ledley told CBC News.

Using vast cloud computing capacity, Ledley and team designed a system to scan more than two million scientific publications for known drug targets. Then they scoured every government research grant awarded by the NIH since 1985.

In the end they were able to identify which of the 210 new drugs approved since 2010 had publicly funded science behind it.

The answer? All of them.

"We were a little bit surprised at the magnitude we found." Ledley told CBC News. "There was government funded research leading to every single one of the drugs approved in this decade."

It's a strong argument that the public does need to be sure that they get their return on what's a larger investment than many people may have realized,- Fred Ledley,  Bentley University

"The public is making a big investment," he said. The research was published last week.

So do these findings suggest that drug prices should be lower to reflect the public investment? Ledley said his team did not do that economic analysis.

"It's a strong argument that the public does need to be sure that they get their return on what's a larger investment than many people may have realized," he said. "If people can't afford their drugs, they're not getting the benefit of those drugs on the market."

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