Protect At All Costs Image Credit: Fortune
Protect At All Costs Image Credit: Fortune

Protect At All Costs

Humira, the world’s bestselling drug, has turned AbbVie into a global powerhouse. The company has proved to be great at guarding its patents—and not so great at developing new therapies. How a blockbuster medication became a case study in what’s killing drug innovation.

SY Mukherjee
YOU MAY NOT HAVE any of the conditions Humira treats. But chances are, you’ve heard of it.

AbbVie’s flagship therapy, a medicine used to treat a slew of conditions from arthritis to psoriasis to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is the bestselling drug in the world, bringing in nearly $20 billion in global sales last year alone. As one U.S. senator noted at a hearing on drug prices in February, that titanic sales figure would be enough to put Humira (were it a company unto itself) on the Fortune 500 list.

And on first glance, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect archetype for drug success. Abbott Laboratories—which spun off its branded pharmaceuticals unit as a separate company, AbbVie, in 2013—received its first FDA approval to market the medicine on Dec. 31, 2002. A little more than two years later, the injectable drug surpassed the billion-dollar mark in global sales, traditionally the threshold for “blockbuster” status in the pharmaceutical industry—a stunning feat in such a brief span. By 2006, sales had reached $2 billion, a number that would more than double in just two years’ time. By 2013, Humira was the world’s bestselling drug, with $10.7 billion in sales across more than 60 markets, and as improbable as it seems, even that colossal sales figure has nearly doubled again in the half-decade since.

Humira is also, importantly, an effective medicine—and for s

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