Divergence and convergence of commercial and scientific priorities in drug development: the case of Zelmid, the first SSRI antidepressant
Summary, in English
Based on a realist conceptualization of interests, this paper explores how commercial and scientific priorities appear to have converged and diverged during the development of the antidepressant Zelmid. The drug represents the first of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to reach the market. Zelmid was synthesized in 1971 and launched by the Swedish firm Astra in 1982, but subsequently withdrawn the next year because of adverse neurological effects. This paper draws on in-depth interviews with scientists representing both industry and academia who had high-level involvement in various phases of the project (experimental, pre-clinical and clinical), as well as on textual sources such as scientific articles and memoirs. Zelmid was a product of mechanism-based or “rational” drug discovery from the early 1960s and the associated intermingling of science and commerce. It is argued that both scientists and the pharmaceutical company shared an interest in embracing mechanism-based drug discovery because it simultaneously promised medico-scientific advances and profits. However, the intermingling of science and commerce also strained the relationship between scientific and commercial priorities further along the trajectory of the drug; for example, concerning issues such as dosage strategy and drug use in primary care, where corporate management allegedly took decisions contrary to the recommendations of both academic and company scientists. On such occasions the asymmetry in power became apparent in scientists’ narratives: commercial considerations trumped those of science since, ultimately, decisions rest with management, not with scientists. In addition, temporality appears to be associated with the divergence of commercial and scientific priorities. While rare during experimental and pre-clinical phases, divergence was concentrated downstream to the clinical testing and post-marketing phases. It is hypothesized that a similar pattern of convergence and divergence of commercial and scientific priorities may exist in the trajectory of other drugs.