How medicines are made

By Yvonne Perrie, Professor in Pharmaceutics/Drug Delivery

A large number of medicines are currently available to treat a wide range of medical conditions. However, when we take a pill to treat a headache, or when we get vaccinated to prevent ourselves getting a disease, we rarely consider how much effort it took to develop the medicine. UK pharmaceutical scientists play a major role in creating new medicines, improving existing ones and ensuring they are used effectively.  This contributes not only to the health and wealth of the British nation, but also to improving health at a global level.

Approximately one fifth of the top 100 medicines currently in use were created on the basis of research conducted by UK scientists.
The development of new vaccines is only one of the many areas that pharmaceutical scientists’ work in, but it is an area that attracts much media attention. Although currently we successfully treat many more illnesses than in the past, there are still some diseases which pose a great threat to patients, particularly diseases in developing countries. As it is often much easier to prevent an illness than to treat it, developing new vaccines is vitally important.

Effective vaccines have been developed which have helped win the battle against polio, measles, chickenpox and typhoid, diseases which had decimated the global population in the past. Unfortunately, it is difficult to prepare a vaccine against every virus or bacteria especially those that are constantly evolving, such as HIV, or those that involve other immune cells, such as tuberculosis. Vaccines that are used in developing countries are exposed to climatic conditions that are hot and humid, requiring vaccines to be not only effective, but also easy to store, transport and administer.

Working on a new vaccine is like doing crossword puzzles – you need to take into consideration many different scenarios. This explains why new vaccines are not created overnight. For example, in the case of the TB vaccine which we are now working on as part of the TBVI (TuBerulosis Vaccine Initiative ), it can take approximately 15 years to develop.

Is this a long or a short period of time? From a scientific point of view this is the amount of time it takes to create the necessary information to get a new medicine marketed. From the public’s point of view it may seem to be very long. This is a reflection of the amount of work that goes into the development of new treatments. The latest video by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society highlights the complexity of tasks pharmaceutical scientists face when developing new medicines.  Hopefully this will help inform those members of the public, who often take for granted having new medicines in their cabinet, of the long and difficult path necessary to get a new medicine on the market.