What is the pharmaceutical industry?

Pile of white pills

The pharmaceutical industry discovers, develops, makes and sells medicines.

The best known pharmaceutical companies include GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, but there are hundreds more. Some companies have research and development (R&D) and manufacturing sites in the UK, others may just have head offices here.

About 67,000 people work in the pharmaceutical industry in the UK, of these 25,000 work in R&D. Many are scientists, mainly chemists, biologists and pharmacists, others are engineers or manufacturing operatives, or may have qualifications in IT, finance, law, marketing or other specialist fields.

It takes about 12 and a half years for a new medicine to go through the tests that are required before it can be prescribed by doctors in the UK. During this time hundreds of different people are involved, and the medicine passes through a large number of tests. These are designed to check that the medicine will work in the disease it is intended for; and that it will be safe for people to take.

An outline of the different stages in the development of a modern medicine is given on our education website . On that site you can also explore lots of different science topics.