Whether you're young or old, male or female, rich or poor; at one time or another, we need some form of healthcare. You might need face wash to clear those blackheads before a big date, or a lipid inhibitor to resume eating copious amounts of fried goodness. The necessity of healthcare makes providing it one of the most profitable business ventures in the world. Unsurprisingly, Big Pharma tends to focus on treating ailments which affect developed, wealthy, nations and not the afflictions of those countries with less money. As such, it is often the case that highly treatable, yet serious diseases, are left unstudied, because there is little profit to be made from the communities in which these diseases are most prevalent.
So then, what are the most profitable diseases for these pharmaceutical companies? Given what was just said above, it is not a shock that the five on this list are overwhelmingly those most commonly associated with modern life in the developed world. This is not only because we are (theoretically) able to afford these treatments, but we are also (apparently) unable to avoid living the type of life that leads to them.
Our choices have been determined by which diseases have, in the past decade, had the highest number of specialized drugs selling in large quantities. We also looked at which drug types had the highest sales in 2012. Lastly, we considered how common and persistent the diseases are in terms of how long and how seriously they affect everyday life. In other words, while some drugs offered by Big Pharma are very expensive, they don't necessarily equal high profits, because the thing they are meant to treat is only an issue for short periods of time or curable. Also off the list are diseases which may have been profitable in the past, but have since reached their patent expiration date and so now compete with generic versions, making the drug less profitable.
5 5 – Various Cancers (Esp. Colon/Breast/Lung)
Surprisingly, cancer is not ranked near the top of our list. While treatments for cancer are expensive, it isn't as chronic a disease as many others, and the treatments aren't as profitable because of expense involved in their production, and their tendency to be administered over short periods.
Cancer is an umbrella term for a wide group of diseases. All involve the abnormal growth of cells which divide without rhyme or reason, killing neighbouring cells and quickly spreading throughout the body. Given that this is all it takes for cancer to take hold, the disease can affect literally any part of the body.
Treatments for cancer are not as mass-produced or readily available as many other diseases. Results of the most common treatments, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are sporadic at best, and require far too much in the way of production and administration to rake in high profits for private pharmaceutical companies. That said, drugs such as Avastin (generic term: bevacizumab) can help in the control of specific cancers by inhibiting the growth of new cells for the cancer to attack, or turning off the genes which cause growth altogether, thus starving the cancer cells. There's no doubt that cancer is one of the most expensive and top killers in the world, but profits lay more in the chronic, lifelong diseases still to come.
4 4 – Asthma
Asthma affects over 300 million people worldwide, with the annual global sales of medication worth several billion dollars. Caused mainly by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, asthma occurs when inflammation of the airway restricts normal breathing. The frequency and degree of this inflammation varies from person to person, with some suffers having chronic occurrences, and others rarely, if ever, experiencing symptoms. Any of a number of triggers can bring on attacks.
Though long-term treatments exist, the most typical are inhalers, which administer a full dose of small-molecule drugs in powdered form directly to the affected airway. Because of the varied and complex nature of asthma symptoms, it is common to combine treatments for different levels of activity and necessity of the patient, Seretide (generic term: fluticasone/salmeterol) is a good example of this. In 2011 Seretide alone earned more than $8,148,000,000. Like most of the entrants on this list, asthma is becoming more frequent in developed countries, so those profits are likely to increase.
3 3 – Schizophrenia (ADD, ADHD, Depression)
Schizophrenia is not limited to split personality disorders, and can range from anything as simple as difficulty holding a conversation, to full blown hallucinations. In addition to these and other sensory problems, schizophrenics can also suffer from severe emotional imbalances such as manic depression, and it is here that it makes money. To a greater degree than most of the other ailments on this list, schizophrenia is a lifelong disease which can manifest very early on. The major causes here are again thought to be genetic and environmental, but prolonged use of amphetamines, methamphetamines, and alcohol can radically alter brain chemistry and induce schizophrenia.
Abilify (generic term: aripiprazole) has historically been the single most lucrative drug for treating schizophrenia, its profits peaking at $7,363,000,000 in 2011. Like all schizophrenic medications, Abilify is a antipsychotic, working to reduce the psychological symptoms of schizophrenia by altering and normalizing brain chemistry. Because the treatment method of these drugs tends to be extremely general, and because the disease itself can be lifelong and so broad in its definition (schizophrenia can manifest as ADD, depression, hallucinations, etc.), they are shockingly profitable. With the apparent rise of ADD and depression in children of developed nations, sales of antipsychotics are ready to increase dramatically.
2 2 – Autoimmune Diseases (Type 1 Diabetes, Arthritis)
The term 'autoimmune disease' covers all manner of ailments, from celiac disease to eczema, but the real profits are in Type I diabetes and arthritis. All of these are caused by the body's having an abnormal immune response to the presence of a substance (foreign body, protein, tissue, etc.) or organ which is perfectly common to the body. Autoimmune diseases now affect over 50 million people in America alone - most of whom are women.
To parallel this increase in the frequency of autoimmune diseases, the new top pharmaceutical for 2013 is Humira (generic term: adalimumab), which sold over $9,265,000,000 worth of product in 2012 alone - nearly 37% of the entire autoimmune market's revenue. Unlike some other medications mentioned here, Humira is still in its patent stage, so sales will continue to rise without competition until December 2016. Even when the market opens up to generics, increasingly poor diet and longer life expectancies will see autoimmune diseases increase in frequency, further driving up pharmaceutical profits.
1 1 - Dyslipidemia (Obesity)
Dyslipidemia can refer to any abnormal level of lipids in the bloodstream. While this can include abnormally low levels of lipids, the much more common ailment is having increased fat/cholesterol levels. The main culprits of this are diet and lifestyle, in particular those of developed economies, where higher standards of living often involve long hours in front of screens, and the consumption of fatty foods. In this vein, the World Health Organization is predicting more countries will soon face obesity as the primary health concern – topping malnutrition and infectious diseases. Though this is worrisome, there might be a silver lining in there somewhere, with the world's health problems now related to having too much, and not to than having too little.
The most popular dyslipidemia medication for the past decade or so has been Lipitor (generic term: atorvastatin), a small-molecule drug which serves as an anti-inflammatory, and inhibits the liver's production of cholesterol. Sales of Lipitor peaked in 2006 at $13,696,000,000. Though sales have since decreased for Lipitor itself, the market remains so large that competition is not a serious concern to sales. The fact that obesity is on the rise in developed nations, and with more nations speeding their way to development, guarantees that dyslipidemia will remain at the top of the list for quite some time.