The role of public-sector research in the discovery of drugs and vaccines

N Engl J Med. 2011 Feb 10;364(6):535-41. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa1008268.


Background: Historically, public-sector researchers have performed the upstream, basic research that elucidated the underlying mechanisms of disease and identified promising points of intervention, whereas corporate researchers have performed the downstream, applied research resulting in the discovery of drugs for the treatment of diseases and have carried out development activities to bring them to market. However, the boundaries between the roles of the public and private sectors have shifted substantially since the dawn of the biotechnology era, and the public sector now has a much more direct role in the applied-research phase of drug discovery.

Methods: We identified new drugs and vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that were discovered by public-sector research institutions (PSRIs) and classified them according to their therapeutic category and potential therapeutic effect.

Results: We found that during the past 40 years, 153 new FDA-approved drugs, vaccines, or new indications for existing drugs were discovered through research carried out in PSRIs. These drugs included 93 small-molecule drugs, 36 biologic agents, 15 vaccines, 8 in vivo diagnostic materials, and 1 over-the-counter drug. More than half of these drugs have been used in the treatment or prevention of cancer or infectious diseases. PSRI-discovered drugs are expected to have a disproportionately large therapeutic effect.

Conclusions: Public-sector research has had a more immediate effect on improving public health than was previously realized.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research* / history
  • Biomedical Research* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Drug Approval / statistics & numerical data
  • Drug Discovery / history
  • Drug Discovery / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Drug Discovery / statistics & numerical data*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Intellectual Property
  • Public Sector* / history
  • Public Sector* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Technology Transfer*
  • United States
  • United States Food and Drug Administration
  • Vaccines*


  • Vaccines