NHS70 timeline of medicines innovation

Innovation in medicines has saved the lives of and improved quality of life for millions of people over the 70 years of the NHS. From the ground-breaking discoveries of penicillin and streptomycin, which were made available to all in the earliest days of the NHS, to the latest developments in biological medicines which act on the immune system and tissue engineered medicines which change the body’s own cells. Find out more about the history of medicines innovation and use in the NHS:

Era of chemical medicines which act on the body


Penicillin – 1940s

Discovered by Alexander Flemming in 1928, and used clinically from the 1940s. Penicillin and its derivatives have saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Streptomycin – 1943

Used to treat tuberculosis, it was first isolated in 1943. The first randomised trial was conducted using streptomycin between 1947-1948.


Prednisolone – 1950

Continues to be the most widely prescribed oral steroid, and has helped countless patients with inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

Polio Vaccination – 1955

In the 1940s-50s polio killed or paralysed over 500,000 people worldwide every year.

No UK acquired cases of polio since 1984; globally, 340 reported cases in 2014.


Oral Contraceptive Pill – 1961

A key factor in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s, and it continues to be used extensively today.

Ibuprofen – 1969

Launched as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, was made available for over the counter use in 1983 for general pain relieving and anti-inflammatory actions.


Ciclosporin – 1971

An immunosuppressant that enabled significant advances in organ transplantation, making it more routine and less experimental.

Cimetidine – 1976

The first H2 receptor antagonist and, with a similar drug, ranitidine (launched in 1981), enabled major advances in the treatment of stomach ulcers.


ACE inhibitors – 1981

Discovered in 1975, and used clinically from 1981 for hypertension; ACE inhibitors had a new revolutionary mechanism of action which prevented microvascular damage.

Fluoxetine – 1987

Ushering in a new class of anti-depressant therapy, fluoxetine is estimated to have been prescribed to 52 million people worldwide since launch.


HIV Protease Inhibitors – 1995

First step in the routine management of HIV.  These drugs and subsequent advances mean that patients with HIV now have near normal life expectancy.

Sildenafil (Viagra) – 1996

The first oral drug approved for use in erectile dysfunction, a condition estimated to affect more than 150 million men worldwide.

Era of biological medicines which act on the immune system


Biological medicines – 2000

Enabled revolutionary treatments for conditions including certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, macular degeneration, Crohn’s disease. Examples include trastuzumab, launched 2000.

HPV vaccine – 2008

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide, with HPV implicated in at least 70% of cases.

Era of tissue-engineered medicines which change the body’s own cells


Advanced technology medicinal products – 2014

A new type of medicine for human use that offers ground-breaking opportunities for the treatment of disease and injury across a range of conditions. This includes somatic cell therapy medicines where cells or tissues are altered to change their biological characteristics, and tissue engineered medicines which contain modified cells or tissues to repair, regenerate or replace human tissue.

3D printing – 2015

3D printing methods are being used to manufacture medicines and a ‘polypill’, that combines a number of different medicines commonly taken together, has been created.