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Plant-based drugs - room for growth?


An estimated one-quarter of the prescription drugs sold in the United States, Canada and Europe contain active ingredients derived from plants, claims a new report from BCC research. Global over-the-counter sales of plant-derived drugs are estimated at $40 billion per year - and increasing interest will push these figures further.

According to the report, nobody knows exactly how many plants are used medicinally worldwide, but only an estimated 5 per cent to 15 per cent of the approximate 250,000 higher plants have ever been investigated for bioactive compounds.

Currently, pharmaceutical companies and researchers are searching for new plant-derived drugs, spending millions on screening various plants for active constituents. In addition, they are developing new uses for known herbal remedies and conducting experiments with blends of different herbals.

Sales of plant-derived drugs, writes BCC, are projected to increase at an average annual growth rate of 6.4 per cent, reaching $18.8 billion by 2007. These projections exclude plant-derived nutraceuticals that do not have specific, well-documented therapeutic properties other than promoting overall "wellness" or generally strengthening the body's resistance to disease, the report authors add.

The North American market accounts for 50 per cent of the global plant-derived drug market in 2002, and is growing faster than foreign markets as a whole (i.e., an average of 7.5 per cent per year against 5.3 per cent).

The lower growth rates forecast for non-North American markets reflect the lower growth rates forecast for Europe where burdensome regulations, coupled with governments' attempts to contain soaring healthcare budgets by capping drug prices, are reducing drug companies' incentives to invest and market their products in these countries.

The market is also projected to grow more slowly in the developed markets of Asia, particularly, Japan, where an economic slump is expected to continue for at least several more years. Lagging growth in the developed markets of Europe and Asia will more than offset more rapid market growth in the developing countries, the result of their continuing economic growth, coupled with large amounts of international financial assistance to the poorest countries' healthcare sectors. As a result, BCC predicts that the North American share of the total market is projected to increase slightly to 52.4 per cent by 2007.

Despite promising new drugs in the pipeline, BCC views the plant-derived drugs industry as being at a crossroads in its development. Some of the big multinational drug companies appear increasingly reluctant to invest hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in the development of new plant-based drugs.

The reasons for this apparent reluctance include legal and regulatory issues such as patent protection, the increasing difficulty of bioprospecting, and the availability of alternative drug discovery platforms.

BCC concludes that making the outlook for plant-derived drugs even more uncertain, and concurrent with questions raised by some big drug firms over their commitment to developing new plant-derived drugs, is the shaky state of the world economy. This is creating obstacles to the growth and expansion of the new 'phytomedical' firms, mostly start-ups, that have begun to play a larger role in the development of new plant drugs.