Journal Article


Tamoxifen from failed contraceptive pill to best-selling breast cancer medicine: a case-study in pharmaceutical innovation

Abstract

Today, tamoxifen is one of the world’s best-selling hormonal breast cancer drugs. However, it was not always so. Compound ICI 46,474 (as it was first known) was synthesized in 1962 within a project to develop a contraceptive pill in the pharmaceutical laboratories of ICI (now part of AstraZeneca). Although designed to act as an anti-estrogen, the compound stimulated, rather than suppressed ovulation in women. This, and the fact that it could not be patented in the USA, its largest potential market, meant that ICI nearly stopped the project. It was saved partly because the team’s leader, Arthur Walpole, threatened to resign, and pressed on with another project: to develop tamoxifen as a treatment for breast cancer. Even then, its market appeared small, because at first it was mainly used as a palliative treatment for advanced breast cancer. An important turning point in tamoxifen’s journey from orphan drug to bestselling medicine occurred in the 1980s, when clinical trials showed that it was also useful as an adjuvant to surgery and chemotherapy in the early stages of the disease. Later, trials demonstrated that it could prevent its occurrence or re-occurrence in women at high risk of breast cancer. Thus, it became the first preventive for any cancer, helping to establish the broader principles of chemoprevention, and extending the market for tamoxifen and similar drugs further still. Using tamoxifen as a case study, this paper discusses the limits of the rational approach to drug design, the role of human actors, and the series of feedback loops between bench and bedside that underpins pharmaceutical innovation. The paper also highlights the complex evaluation and management of risk that are involved in all therapies, but more especially perhaps in life-threatening and emotion-laden diseases like cancer.

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Authors

Quirke, Viviane M.

Oxford Brookes departments

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences\Department of History, Philosophy and Religion

Dates

Year of publication: 2017
Date of RADAR deposit: 2017-09-27


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


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