Lesson idea: Pharmaceutical company simulation

All you need to help your students explore drug development

This issue's student activity is based around a simulation of a pharmaceutical company planning future spending. It gives students the chance to role-play various characters working for the company and to consider which pharmaceutical they should develop.

Three different drugs – tackling obesity, HIV/AIDS and heart disease – have had successful phase II trials but the company can only afford to run expensive phase III trials on one of them. But which one will it be? Students will review each of the proposals, take part in a debate to discuss the issues at stake and vote on the drug they think the company should invest in.


Medicines are often in the news. We hear a lot about the rising costs of drugs for the NHS and a postcode lottery for some of them. Occasionally we hear scare stories of drugs that are found to have unexpected side effects and have to be withdrawn. We are also aware of many diseases and illnesses for which there are no effective treatments. This resource will touch on these issues but primarily looks at the pharmaceutical companies and the pressures on them when developing new medicines. Arguably it is these companies that really have the power to decide what is available for doctors to prescribe.

Our approach

Role-play aims to get students involved in making a decision that could affect thousands (perhaps millions) of patients. We want students to weigh up maturely the sometimes conflicting pressures on a large company and, in reaching a decision, appreciate its full implications.

Learning goals

  • Understand more fully the trials that drugs have to undergo before being approved.
  • Be aware of the huge costs and timescales involved in drug development.
  • Appreciate the conflicting expectations (internally from scientists and commercial managers; externally from patients, shareholders and healthcare agencies) on a large pharmaceutical company.
  • Gain an insight into some drug targets that research scientists have recently discovered and learn more about some important diseases. 
  • Consider whether the free-market economy of the western world best serves the needs of patients.

Suggested timescale

All students will need up 30 minutes to read through the briefing notes in preparation for the activity. Those playing the key roles will require longer. It might therefore be necessary to allocate a homework session for preparation. A one-hour lesson for the main debate is followed by an optional one-hour homework activity.


  • Activity sheet for all students
  • Drug development sheets for all students
  • Role-play cards or PowerPoint presentations for key individuals
  • Questions
  • Homework sheet

All these resources can be downloaded via the links at the bottom of the page.


Glazmerzer, the large pharmaceutical company, is planning future expenditure. Things have not gone well in the last five years, with three high-profile failures of drugs during phase III. Now the company must plan and prioritise spending very carefully – compounds moving beyond phase II must have a very high chance of success and contribute significantly to the company’s income.

A very senior committee of executives meets at head office. The Chief Executive Officer, the Head of Research and Development, the Head of Commercial Operations, and the Chief Financial Officer are present. Three development leaders are given the opportunity to present the case for a drug from their therapeutic area being funded into phase III.

Preparing the roles

Seven students in the group need to be assigned the roles listed above. Names are assigned to these characters that give a multicultural and gender mix. Change these names if appropriate to your school but aim to maintain the variety.

  1. Role-play cards are provided for the senior executives. Please note that a strong CEO is essential – if necessary a teacher can take on this role.
  2. Templates for PowerPoint presentations are provided for the three development heads. The purpose is to reduce the students’ planning load and to standardise the nature of the presentations. The slide content has deliberately been kept brief – those playing these roles should use the notes provided to talk around the bullet points. Advise students that they do not need to add extra slides – a longer presentation with extra text is not desirable.
  3. The remaining students should study the activity notes and drug development sheets. They should each prepare to ask a question after the presentations. Alternatively you could assign additional roles – perhaps a representative from a medical charity, a patient desperate for an effective treatment or a shareholder concerned about his investment. A list of questions is provided; you could cut this up and ‘plant’ questions among the audience. This works best if the students are encouraged to think about who would be asking the questions and why.

Guidance on running a role play

Good preparation is vital. To make sure that your role-play goes well and is useful you will need to address the following questions before you stage it.

  1. What is the role-play about? If your students are not clear about this you may waste time putting on a play that isn’t relevant.
  2. What is the purpose of the role-play? If your students are not clear about this you may put on a play that doesn’t deal with the important issues. 
  3. What characters are in the role-play? It is important to have enough characters to represent a range of views and opinions but not so many as to be confusing or to make the play too long. The seven main characters are enough but other students could take additional roles. 
  4. What do the characters believe? In this example, students are given roles with firmly defined beliefs. 
  5. What about students’ beliefs? Remind them that for the purposes of the debate, what they believe isn’t important – it is what their character believes that matters. They might disagree with their character, but still have to speak as the character, not as themselves. There will be time at the end for students to discuss their personal views.

It will be beneficial to rehearse first. It would be helpful for the seven main characters to meet beforehand and run through the proceedings.

In the role-play itself, make sure that all the characters get the chance to speak their mind. If there is time, the different characters can debate with one another.

After the role-play, discuss what people have said and use this to decide where you stand. Give an opportunity for those who were in roles to come out of role and give their point of view.

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Medicine, Biotechnology and engineering
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development