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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 9

I Introduction

II The Australian Chemical Industry

III Pharmaceuticals
i Prosperous pioneers
ii War-time pharmaceutical chemistry
iii Commonwealth Serum Laboratories
iv Post-war pharmaceutical manufacture
v Public sector policies

IV Chemists In Other Industries

V The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis

VI The Growth Of Synthetic Chemicals - Concentration, Rationalisation And International Links

VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories

VIII The Plastics Industry

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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Like medicine amongst the professions, so pharmaceuticals amongst chemicals occupy a special position. Because they relate to human -and animal -health they are, at some time or other, of critical importance to most people and, at all times, a significant component of the State's health bill.[51] With the advent of chemotherapy they have become truly lifesaving yet some are subject to misuse. The industry is driven by humanistic idealism, scientific creativity and aggressive private enterprise, tempered, helped, and at times throttled, by Government intervention. It is essentially an international industry, led by the industrial majors in which the developing and small nations, with a few exceptions (Switzerland, Holland, Denmark) have little share so that pharmaceuticals, in their national accounts, figure as costs of imports. The positive offsets, quality of life, health, improved productivity and savings in hospital bills are intangible and are not measured in government budgets. Little surprise, then, that emotions about the industry, admiration and criticism, have at times run high.

Modern chemotherapy is scarcely a century old, if counted from L. Pasteur (Anthrax vaccination, 1881), R. Koch (Anthrax bacillus, 1878) and P. Ehrlich (Salvarsan, 1909) or less than half a century, if counted from A. Fleming (1928), Lord Florey and E. B. Chain's (1940/41) penicillin or G. Domagk's sulpha-drugs (1936, prontosil). What characterises drugs above all is that the results of many man-years of work in the end are compressed into minute amounts of matter, milligrams, indeed a non Einsteinian conversion of human energy into matter. In the early days of chemotherapy they were the man-years of small groups of distinguished enthusiasts; costs were relatively trivial and borne by the individual or the public purse, usually universities, although the many man-years of all those who failed went uncounted. In the last 50 years, however, the costs of synthesis, screening, toxicology, process development, clinical evaluation and registration have become so colossal that only large organisations could face them. By the time between 10 000 and 20 000 compounds had to be made and evaluated before one would be commercially viable, the discovery of even a single new drug had become a 50 to 100 million dollar risk investment. Yet, once it was established what the drug's formula was, what it cured and how much of it could be safely taken, manufacture of the active ingredient (or evasion by analogues) was a relatively simple matter to modern industrial chemists.

The drastic contrast between effect, often life saving, and the commercial vulnerability of the discovery had a profound influence on the industry. When manufacturers of cars or petrochemicals spent multi-million dollar sums on plants, they had a lasting investment on the ground; the research cost in the product (cars, petrochemicals) was but a small component, say 3 or 5 per cent. With drugs the cost of research and promotion could amount to over 50 per cent of price and the cost of production was but a small fraction of research and development costs. Once the drug was established most of the resultant property was intellectual, not physical. Millions had been spent, and all that was left was information.

The people who were prepared to take on risks of this magnitude were understandably concerned with security of tenure. Imitation was easy; formulation in most cases fairly well established; transport costs of minute quantities of matter insignificant; production volumes small in terms of plants required, indeed some drugs could be supplied to the world from little more than pilot plants. To cope with these characteristics the manufacturers needed patent protection. They concentrated manufacture of the active ingredient in their home territories and, when all else failed, kept some advances secret. Most patent systems recognised the merit of curative properties of new substances, hence provided strong patent protection for new substances per se or, via the protection of new formulations, for the discovery of new properties associated with known substances. The new chemical per se thus became a prized possession for the individual chemist, the company and, by reduction of hospital treatment costs, the State.

People in Bright Sparcs - Florey, Howard; Pasteur, Louis

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© 1988 Print Edition page 651, Online Edition 2000
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