LONDON—Unless you’ve got a mean case of ulcers, you may barely have heard of Glaxo, maker of the top-selling digestive aid Zantac. But recent COUPS by the British pharmaceutical giant’s staff scientists have catapulted the firm to the forefront of the drug industry, giving its United States rivals a case of corporate ulcers.

In the 1970s, Glaxo was consid ered an industrial laggard. But in the past eight years, the pharmaceutical company has pulled a stunning about-face. Besides producing Zantac, which has become a billion-dollar-a-year best-seller, the firm has more than tripled overall sales and quintupled the amount of money it pours into R&D each year (see chart). Amazingly, Glaxo has propelled itself from 25th place in 1980 to second place in the current international ranking (by sales) of drug firms— and there can be no doubt that it has its sights set on first.

To get there, the company...

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