The emerging markets of China, India and Brazil will play a crucial role in setting the agenda for pharmaceutical firms worldwide, according to Richard Sykes, chairman and chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome.
Sir Richard, who is on the committee of the Dearing inquiry into higher education, told a meeting of the Research and Development Society last week, that 85 per cent of Glaxo Wellcome's business is in North America, Europe and Japan, with the remaining 15 per cent located in emerging markets.
The firm's projection for the gross domestic product of the top 15 countries in 2020 suggests China will be the dominant country followed by US and Japan and, not far behind, India, Indonesia and Brazil.
Sir Richard cited the firm's development of its hepatitis B treatment, lamivudine, as an example of a drug that could be of major benefit to the developing world.
Hepatatis B, an inflammation of the liver, is the ninth most common cause of death in the world, causing 1 to 2 million deaths per year. 350 million people are affected, 75 per cent of them in the Asia-Pacific area.
"We are now working closely with Chinese authorities to work out how to best bring this drug to patients," he said.
Sir Richard said collaborative work with external groups was "essential" for the success of Glaxo Wellcome's drug development programmes.
The firm spent Pounds 1.2 billion on research and development in 1995 and supports research programmes at more than 50 universities.
The industry was initially driven by chemistry and more recently by biology, he said.
The next generation will see a greater role played by genetics in the way drugs are discovered and developed.
"We have seen the use of animal and cell-based systems. Now we are heading towards a situation where more of our scientists will be working at a computer screen, with bioinformatic databases, and may not work in the laboratory at all," he said.
The industry has also progressed from a "manual era" to partial automation.
"Now we are moving towards a fully computer-controlled robotic operation. This will allow our scientists to be free to do the thinking while our robots and computers do the mundane work," he said.