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This industry ranks among the fastest growing manufacturing industries. More than 6 out of 10 workers have a bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or Ph.D. degree—twice the proportion for all industries combined. 43.3 percent of all jobs are in large establishments employing more than 1000 workers. Earnings are much higher than in other manufacturing industries.

The pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry has produced a variety of medicinal and other health-related products undreamed of by even the most imaginative apothecaries of the past. These drugs save the lives of millions of people from various diseases and permit many ill people to recover to lead normal lives.



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Antinausea drugs help cancer patients endure chemotherapy; clot-buster drugs help stroke patients avoid brain damage; and psychoactive drugs reduce the severity of mental illness for many people. Antibiotics and vaccines have virtually wiped out such diseases as diphtheria, syphilis, and whooping cough. Discoveries in veterinary drugs have controlled various diseases, some of which are transmissible to humans.

The U.S. pharmaceutical industry has achieved worldwide prominence through research and development (R&D) on new drugs, and spends a relatively high proportion of its funds on R&D compared with other industries. Each year, pharmaceutical industry testing involves tens of thousands of new substances, yet may eventually yield fewer than 100 new prescription medicines.

For the majority of firms in this industry, the actual manufacture of drugs is the last stage in a lengthy process that begins with scientific research to discover new products and to improve or modify existing ones. The R&D departments in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing firms start this process by seeking and rapidly testing libraries of thousands to millions of new chemical compounds with the potential to prevent, combat, or alleviate symptoms of diseases or other health problems. Scientists use sophisticated techniques, including computer simulation, combinatorial chemistry, and high-through-put screening (HTS), to hasten and simplify the discovery of potentially useful new compounds.

Most firms devote a substantial portion of their R&D budgets to applied research, using scientific knowledge to develop a drug targeted to a specific use. For example, an R&D unit may focus on developing a compound that will effectively slow the advance of breast cancer. If the discovery phase yields promising compounds, technical teams then attempt to develop a safe and effective product based on the discoveries.

To test new products in development, a research method called “screening” is used. To screen an antibiotic, for example, a sample is first placed in a bacterial culture. If the antibiotic is effective, it is next tested on infected laboratory animals. Laboratory animals also are used to study the safety and efficacy of the new drug. A new drug is selected for testing on humans only if it promises to have therapeutic advantages over drugs already in use, or is safer. Drug screening is an incredibly risky, laborious, and costly process—only 1 in every 5,000 to 10,000 compounds screened eventually becomes an approved drug.

After laboratory screening, firms conduct clinical investigations, or “trials,” of the drug on human patients. Human clinical trials normally take place in three phases. First, medical scientists administer the drug to a small group of healthy volunteers to determine and adjust dosage levels, and monitor for side effects. If a drug appears useful and safe, additional tests are conducted in two more phases, each phase using a successively larger group of volunteers or carefully selected patients, sometimes upwards of 10,000 individuals.

After a drug successfully passes animal and clinical tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) must review the drug’s performance on human patients before approving the substance for commercial use. The entire process, from the first discovery of a promising new compound to FDA approval, can take over a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

After FDA approval, problems of production methods and costs must be worked out before manufacturing begins. If the original laboratory process of preparing and compounding the ingredients is complex and too expensive, pharmacists, chemists, chemical engineers, packaging engineers, and production specialists are assigned to develop a manufacturing process economically adaptable to mass production. After the drug is marketed, new production methods may be developed to incorporate new technology or to transfer the manufacturing operation to a new production site.

In many production plants, pharmaceutical manufacturers have developed a high degree of automation. Milling and micronizing machines, which pulverize substances into extremely fine particles, are used to reduce bulk chemicals to the required size. These finished chemicals are combined and processed further in mixing machines. The mixed ingredients may then be mechanically capsulated, pressed into tablets, or made into solutions. One type of machine, for example, automatically fills, seals, and stamps capsules. Other machines fill bottles with capsules, tablets, or liquids, and seal, label, and package the bottles.

Quality control and quality assurance are vital in this industry. Many production workers are assigned full time to quality control and quality assurance functions, whereas other employees may devote part of their time to these functions. For example, although pharmaceutical company sales representatives, often called detailers, work primarily in marketing, they engage in quality control when they assist pharmacists in checking for outdated products.
[ Excerpted from Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2008-09 Edition - Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing ]