Drug Discovery and Development

New drugs begin in the laboratory with scientists, including chemists and pharmacologists, who identify cellular and genetic factors that play a role in specific diseases. They search for chemical and biological substances that target these biological markers and are likely to have drug-like effects. Out of every 5,000 new compounds identified during the discovery process, only five are considered safe for testing in human volunteers after preclinical evaluations. After three to six years of further clinical testing in patients, only one of these compounds is ultimately approved as a marketed drug for treatment. The following sequence of research activities begins the process that results in development of new medicines:

  • Target Identification: Drugs usually act on either cellular or genetic chemicals in the body, known as targets, which are believed to be associated with disease. Scientists use a variety of techniques to identify and isolate individual targets to learn more about their functions and how they influence disease. Compounds are then identified that have various interactions with the drug targets that might be helpful in treatment of a specific disease.
  • Target Prioritization/Validation: To select targets most likely to be useful in the development of new treatments for disease, researchers analyze and compare each drug target to others based on their association with a specific disease and their ability to regulate biological and chemical compounds in the body. Research scientists can then identify compounds that have an effect on the target selected.
  • Lead Identification: A lead compound or substance is one that is believed to have potential to treat disease. Leads are sometimes developed as collections, or libraries, of individual molecules that possess properties needed in a new drug. Testing is then done on each of these molecules to confirm its effect on the drug target.
  • Lead Optimization: Lead optimization compares the properties of various lead compounds and provides information to help biopharmaceutical companies select the compound or compounds with the greatest potential to be developed into safe and effective medicines. Often during this same stage of development, lead prioritization studies are conducted in living organisms (in vivo) and in cells in the test tube (in vitro) to compare various lead compounds and how they are metabolized and affect the body.

What is required before an investigational drug can be tested in human volunteers?

In the preclinical stage of drug development, an investigational drug must be tested extensively in the laboratory to ensure it will be safe to administer to humans. Testing at this stage can take from one to five years and must provide information about the pharmaceutical composition of the drug, its safety, how the drug will be formulated and manufactured, and how it will be administered to the first human subjects.

  • Preclinical Technology: During the preclinical development of a drug, laboratory tests document the effect of the investigational drug in living organisms (in vivo) and in cells in the test tube (in vitro).
  • Chemistry Manufacturing and Controls (CMC)/Pharmaceutics: The results of preclinical testing are used by experts in pharmaceutical methods to determine how to best formulate the drug for its intended clinical use. For example, a drug that is intended to act on the sinuses may be formulated as a time-release capsule or as a nasal spray. Regulatory agencies require testing that documents the characteristics -- chemical composition, purity, quality and potency -- of the drug's active ingredient and of the formulated drug.
  • Pharmacology/Toxicology: Pharmacological testing determines effects of the candidate drug on the body. Toxicology studies are conducted to identify potential risks to humans.

Results of all testing must be provided to the appropriate regulatory agencies in order to obtain permission to begin clinical testing in humans. Regulatory agencies review the specific tests and documentation that are required to proceed to the next stage of development.

How are investigational drugs tested in humans?

Clinical testing is usually described as consisting of Phase I, Phase II and Phase III clinical studies. In each successive phase, increasing numbers of patients are tested.

Phase I studies are designed to verify safety and tolerability of the candidate drug in humans and typically take six to nine months. These are the first studies conducted in humans. A small number of subjects, usually from 20 to 100 healthy volunteers, take the investigational drug for short periods of time. Testing includes observation and careful documentation of how the drug acts in the body -- how it is absorbed, distributed, metabolized and excreted.

Phase II studies are designed to determine effectiveness and further study the safety of the candidate drug in humans. Depending upon the type of investigational drug and the condition it treats, this phase of development generally takes from six months up to three years. Testing is conducted with up to several hundred patients suffering from the condition the investigational drug is designed to treat. This testing determines safety and effectiveness of the drug in treating the condition and establishes the minimum and maximum effective dose.

Phase III studies provide expanded testing of effectiveness and safety of an investigational drug, usually in randomized and blinded clinical trials. Depending upon the type of drug candidate and the condition it treats, this phase usually requires one to four years of testing. In Phase III, safety and efficacy testing is conducted with several hundred to thousands of volunteer patients suffering from the condition the investigational drug treats.

NDAs document safety and efficacy of the investigational drug and contain all the information collected during the drug development process. At the conclusion of successful preclinical and clinical testing, this series of documents is submitted to the applicable regulatory authorities. The application must present substantial evidence that the drug will have the effect it is represented to have when people use it or under the conditions for which it is prescribed, recommended or suggested in the labeling. Obtaining approval to market a new drug frequently takes between six months and two years.