The Legacy of Lyrica

November 18, 2013

Northwestern’s Richard Silverman, professor of chemistry, developed pregabalin, the chemical that Pfizer now markets as Lyrica.  The drug is one of the two approved treatments for fibromyalgia, epilepsy, and the most effective treatment for seizures as well. 

In his laboratory, Silverman’s research team studied chemicals made in the brain. Of particular interest was GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits certain brain functions. When GABA levels fall too low in some people, it can trigger epileptic seizures. His group studied enzymes that affect GABA levels, looking for ways to keep GABA elevated.  In 1989, the Parke-Davis unit of Warner-Lambert was interested in the research findings. Among the 17 chemical analogs that Silverman sent to Parke-Davis, only pregabalin showed effects in mice.

Serendipity played a huge part in shaping this success story, as most chemicals that affect cells in lab experiments do not survive inside an animal. Another outcome of the research was that the compound was effective for a reason entirely different from Silverman’s initial goal of producing more GABA. In another stroke of luck, the molecule happened to be of the right shape to be transported directly into the brain with nearly 90 percent efficacy.

Lyrica has been a tremendous medical and commercial success that has validated the nearly 15 year process from invention to market launch in 2005. In 2004 Lyrica was approved for use in adults for the treatment of various peripheral neuropathic pain indications as well as therapy for partial epilepsy in more than 60 countries outside of the United States. In 2006 Lyrica was also approved for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder in Europe. The drug brought in $1.2 billion in sales in 2006 and in 2010 was approved in Europe to treat central neuropathic (nerve) pain. This is expected to push profits from the blockbuster drug to climb even higher.

Northwestern sold a sizeable amount of royalty interest in 2007 to Royalty Pharma, a company that specializes in acquiring cash-generating intellectual property, for $700 million to help the university’s endowment. This deal has been termed the largest sale ever of a royalty stream for a pharmaceutical product.

To learn more about Lyrica visit the product website at

Originally Appeared: 
Richard B. Silverman