Darwin Update – Drug Discovery: Its future and why we need it!

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    Posted on behalf of Sam Williams

    As some of you may know the Darwin Centre is the Pembrokeshire representative of the British Science Association and as part of National Science & Engineering Week 2014 we have a fantastic speaker coming down from University College London to tell us about his current research.

    Professor Robert Unwin is the Head of Centre and Research Department of Internal Medicine at UCL.  His lecture will cover drug discovery and the current research being conducted at the University.  I have included the full synopsis below.

    ‘Drug discovery: its future and why we need it’
    Drug discovery is about finding new treatments for old and new diseases. It began with the rise of the chemical industry, starting with dyes, and mainly in Germany in the late 19th century. Medications (largely herbal remedies) before then were empirical and with no real scientific basis, chiefly observational and passed down by word of mouth or in some medical treatises. Some of these treatments did seem to work, or at least do no harm, but others were positively dangerous, like bloodletting or hot or steam baths. Toxic chemicals such as mercury and arsenic were also tried. However, the scientific basis of drug development began with chemistry and was more or less contemporaneous with the 'germ theory' of disease (Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch). Indeed, some dyes were found to stain bacteria and from this observation came some of the first antimicrobials, such as the sulphonamides first used in the 1930s, and which pre-dated penicillin, discovered by chance, as was true of many older treatments such as digoxin (digitalis – from the Fox Glove), morphine (from the Poppy – heroin was discovered later by a synthetic reaction), quinine for malaria from Cinchona bark, and aspirin (acetylsalicylate – its active ingredient is salicylic acid from Willow bark – aspirin was not synthesised in 1855, and not developed commercially until 1899). The drug industry or 'Big Pharma' grew rapidly after WWII with many companies (some still household names, like MSD) 'block-buster' (for example to control high blood pressure and blood lipids) drugs that were initially based on their pharmacological and physiological effects, and later using a more targeted approach based on advances in cellular and molecular biology, and with the ability to design drugs from scratch and to predict, at least in isolated systems, their effects. However, over the last decade or so the progress has slowed dramatically and there is a real fear that these companies can no longer discover and manufacture effective and safe drugs to treat the important chronic diseases now confronting us. They are consolidating – merging to form fewer, and not necessarily bigger, companies and reducing their overall investment in research. There are severe reasons for this, some simple, some complex, but all need a wider awareness and engagement from the Public. Companies, like the big Banks, are now multi-national with thousands of employees and turnovers that can exceed the GDP of many nations, large and small. They are commercial entities and answerable to their shareholders, rather than governments, but at the same time they are the repository of enormous intellectual and manufacturing expertise. But unlike car or steel manufacturing, their products serve an almost essential function if we are to control and alleviate disease, yet must be safe and a reasonable cost. That said, no government has the funds or the capacity to match or replace what the larger pharmaceuticals still spend on research, in drug testing and manufacture, and in running clinical trials. There is both a good and bad side to this story, which needs to be explored fully and to be considered carefully and, if possible, objectively. We tend to think that drugs are there, will always be available, will always work, and are safe. The reality is not so straightforward, but the endeavour of drug development is still a very important one.

    Thursday 20th March 2014

    7:00pm – 8:30pm

    Room G7.22

    Pembrokeshire College

    If you would like to attend this FREE event then please reply to this email or phone 01437 753196 to book your places.  Alternatively email darwin@darwincentre.com

    Kind regards

    Samantha Williams
    Project Officer
    The Darwin Centre
    Pembrokeshire College
    SA61 1SZ
    01437 753196
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