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Synthetics drugs and proprietary economics

An excerpt from Medicinal Plants and the Pharmaceutical Industry, an article by James A. Duke from the Center for New Crops & Plant Products, at Purdue University. Circa 1993.

American consumers want natural drugs, believing natural drugs are safer than synthetics.  The pharmaceutical firms seem to prefer synthetics or semisynthetics, in part due to proprietary economic reasons.  The health of the drug company by necessity must concern the drug company before the health of the consumer.  As noted in a recent International Trade Commission Study, "Between 1976 and 1990, the cost of developing a pharmaceutical product in the US increased from $54 million to $231 million.  Only one out of every 4,000-10,000 compounds discovered can be marketed commercially--after which a company has less than ten years to partially recoup its R&D investment before its patent expires and generic manufacturers enter the market or a me-too drug is created by a competitor" (Chemical Marketing Reporter 1991). Such investments may lead pharmaceutical firms to prefer a proprietary synthetic or semisynthetic to a relatively less proprietary herbal or natural product.

American pharmaceutical firms often seek the semisynthetic and avoid the natural compound, when, at least in some cases, the natural compound might be best.  The pharmaceutical firm must consider several attributes including, safety, efficacy, reproducibility of results, patentability, and profitability. With at least $7,000 in public relations directed to each physician in this country by the pharmaceutical firms, the physicians may reflect the same priorities as the pharmaceutical firms.  Consumers, National Institute of Health, Food and Drug Administration, and the government as a whole should seek the safest, cheapest, most efficacious drugs.  Often, these could prove to be standardized herbs or relatively unpatentable natural products, placing the drug companies and the consumers and government's interests in conflict.  More than 10% of Americans can't even afford modern medicine and/or insurance. Farnsworth (1990) estimates that about 64% of the world's population or 3.2 billion people use plants as drugs (largely unable to afford modern medicine). If their drugs are worth as much to them economically as modern medicine is to Americans, these plants are worth trillions of dollars.


  • It's against the law to patent a natural plant
  • To make money pharmaceutical firms seek to create synthetic drugs based on the properties of natural plants
  • Most natural plants work far better than their synthetic counterparts
  • Pharmaceutical are in the business of making money, so it's up to the public to get educated about what really works
  • Well meaning MDs and Docs don't stand a chance against the marketing budgets of big pharma