Center for Molecular Innovation and Drug Discovery

Design. Create. Innovate.


Completing the drug discovery process is arduous, exhaustive, exciting, and extremely challenging. Explaining the drug discovery process can sometimes be the same. Despite the fact that the steps of this process have been virtually unchanged for fifty years, it can still be difficult to effectively and accurately answer the question: How are drugs developed?

Drug Discovery in Academia

Therapeutic research in the academic setting allows researchers to leverage novel disease mechanisms and targets stemming from basic science research. Researchers are also given the opportunity to pursue projects outside the confined limitations in a commercial setting, which are less inclined to invest in:

Unprofitable diseases: Malaria, Tuberculosis and Dengue affect more than 1 billion people and kill more than 2.5 million people per year but less than 1% of drugs approved since 1975 address these diseases.

“High-risk” projects: Which include unconventional disease targets, targets still requiring proof-of-concept validation, and new treatment modalities.

Long-term thinking: Like developing new tools/assays, doing research without immediate commercial payoff, project consistency, and persistence in research.

Academic Success Stories

~30 approved New Chemical Entities (NCEs) have originated at US Universities in the past 40 years (not counting over 50 biologics and vaccines) and the discovery rate of NCEs at US universities and other non-profit institutes appears to be accelerating, currently averaging at 3 to 4 per year.

Below are three drugs that were discovered in academic labs. The top on the list is arguably one of the most successful drugs ever developed and it was discovered right here at Northwestern University.

pregabalinPregabalin (Lyrica®) Anti-convulsant drug used to treat neuropathic pain and epileptic seizures. Discovered at Northwestern University by Dr. Richard Silverman and developed by Pfizer. Ranked 19th in 2013 US Pharmaceutical Sales. Lyrica treats epilepsy, neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia and generalized anxiety disorder.
DarunavirDarunavir (Prezista®) Protease inhibitor drug used to treat HIV infection. Discovered at University of Illinois Chicago by Dr. Arun Ghosh and developed by Tibotec/Janssen. Ranked 60th in 2013 US Pharmaceutical Sales.
VorinostatVorinostat (Zolinza®) First FDA-approved HDAC inhibitor, used to treat cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. Developed by Columbia University chemist, Dr. Ronald Breslow in collaboration with Eli Lilly.



Industrial Drug Discovery and Development

The resources below discuss the industrial drug discovery and development process, exploring concepts like the “drug pipeline” and shedding light on why the term “death valley” is a reality in the drug development process.

Novartis: Drug Discovery and Development Process Video


Drug Development Timeline, by PhRMA:

Above is a representation of the timeline for the drug development process, presented by PhRMA. Interested in learning more? Check out PhRMA‘s brochure, Drug Discovery and Development: Understanding the R&D Process

PhRMA Drug Development Process Brochure