Claims that drugmakers contribute little to pharmaceutical science, and that most medical innovations are the fruit of research financed or conducted by public agencies have been overturned by the findings of a new study.

In fact, the private sector is almost entirely responsible for the applied science of drug development and clinical refinement of compounds, and it is those efforts that ultimately allow new scientific discoveries to be translated into new medicines, say the report’s authors, Benjamin Zycher of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and Joseph A DiMasi and Christopher-Paul Milne, both of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development.

The debate about drug costs and availability has increasingly turned hostile towards the industry, with some commentators claiming that drugmakers invest (or waste) substantial resources in the development of products that are little better than those already on the market. In particular, the authors quote Marcia Angell, former acting editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, who has argued that the “research” part of R&D, which is the most creative, lengthy and uncertain stage of the process, is, “contrary to industry propaganda…almost always carried out at universities or government research labs.”

However, “Dr Angell is wrong. The private-sector contribution to pharmaceutical science is immense and indispensable,” writes Mr Zycher in an op-ed piece adapted from his study and published in the Wall Street Journal.

For the study, the researchers compiled summary case histories of 35 drugs and drug classes which have been identified as important and/or were among the most prescribed in 2007. Their examination of the literature reveals clearly that the scientific contributions of the private sector were crucial for the discovery and/or development of virtually all the drugs and classes studied, they say.

Examples of the advances produced by private-sector research include: discoveries in basic science that led to the development of modern drugs used to treat serious bacterial infections; discoveries in applied science yielding drugs used to treat hypertension; and the advances in recombinant genetic science that allowed large-scale production of such drugs as Amgen’s anemia treatment Epogen (epoetin alfa).

More generally, among the 35 drugs and classes studied, they found that private-sector research was responsible for central advances in basic science for seven, in applied science for 34 and in the development of drugs yielding improved clinical performance or manufacturing processes for 28.

“In short, all or almost all of the drugs and drug classes examined in this study would not have been developed - or their development would have been delayed significantly - in the absence of the scientific or technical contributions of the pharmaceutical firms,” say the authors.