• Question: How would you go about beginning research to e.g. eradicate a particular disease?

    Asked by anon-258254 on 9 Jul 2020.
    • Photo: Heather Walton

      Heather Walton answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      Good question, but this would be a horribly vague thing to be given to research!
      At the start (and throughout) any research project you need to catch up on what work has been done before on the subject, and use that to inform what you are going to do. In chemistry I guess you would be joining a disease eradication project at the point where they had decided on the thing in the body to target (or much later!), so you would start by reading the research that lead to that decision, and on any other research which has targeted the same or similar ‘thing’ in the body (e.g. to develop a Covid-19 medicine you would read other research targeting other coronaviruses such as SARS or the flu).
      Once you are equipped with the background knowledge you can do some science – come up with a hypothesis and test it! But this can be very difficult, for example if your hypothesis is that a certain molecule will cure a disease then to test it you need to make that molecule pure and also be able to measure whether it cures the disease! In reality the work to do this will involve a huge team of people, and can take years and years and cost huge amounts of money! Often the people who do the reading and come up with the ideas are biochemists who work for one company, the ones that make the molecule are synthetic chemists from another company and the ones that test it are specialists from a third company, it is a very collaborative process.
      Then if you prove your molecule cures a disease then there is still more work to do – you need to scale up the production to factory sizes, do lots of safety testing, formulate the molecule into a form so someone can take it (e.g as a tablet, injection), manufacture this finished form, go through clinical trials, regulatory approval and selling the product! And even once a drug is in use, there will be more data being gathered on e.g side effects or people which it doesn’t work for, so that the medicine can be tweaked to make it better. And each new medicine has to go through the whole process again – this is why drug development is hard!

    • Photo: Tiffany Chan

      Tiffany Chan answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      Great question! I suppose it will really depend on the disease that you’re trying to eradicate – is there a well-known target for that disease or not? Or is there a particular interaction you know you want to block? etc. If there is, you can start to design a compound that will do that. One of the things that is often done is high-throughput screening, where we screen 1000s of chemical fragments and see which ones look like they might interact well. As Heather says, the process can take a lot of years (on average, 10-15 years…and that’s just for drugs that actually work) and cost billions of pounds!

    • Photo: Aisling Ryan

      Aisling Ryan answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      I love this question! Something that’s really interesting is this problem could be tackled by different types of scientists in different ways. As a medicinal chemist my job involves designing medicines to treat diseases. For my degree I learnt all about the different ways you can approach this. In order to make a medicine you first need to gather some information about the disease and this would be done by a different scientist, usually a biologist. Once they had gathered information about how the disease infects a person or makes them sick a different type of scientist can look at this information and start coming up with ways to treat the disease. The next step strongly depends on the disease, so if you are interested in a particular disease please let me know and I can discuss that one 🙂 I work with cancer. So when I am designing a medicine I have to look at ways I can kill cancer cells and try to not kill healthy cells, which is actually really difficult. Cancer cells and healthy cells are very similar. If you think of a healthy cell as a slice of bread, a cancer cell would be like some burnt toast! So it’s difficult to kill one and not the other, when both are inside the body and made of the same ingredients. This is why people with cancer who get chemotherapy treatment often loose their hair and feel sick, because the medicine is affecting their healthy cells as well as destroying the cancer. So a strategy that some scientists (medicinal chemists) use is to look at the environment surrounding the cell instead of the cell itself. Cancer cells grow tumours which cause the surrounding area to be low in oxygen. So what I try to do is make a medicine that only starts killing cells when it reaches low levels of oxygen. This is one method to try and kill cancer cells and decrease the harm caused to healthy cells. There are many, many other examples of how to design medicines (which is my job). Another approach, that a biologist would take, could be to work with immune cells to try and programme them to fight the disease instead.A chemist uses chemicals to make medicines and a biologist uses cells from the body instead. Again this all really depends on the disease itself, and importantly whether it is infectious (from bacteria or virus) or a disease that develops within the body without an infection (like cancer or MS or any other disorder.) Hope this answers your question- I’m happy to discuss this more if you’re interested 🙂

    • Photo: Katherine Haxton

      Katherine Haxton answered on 10 Jul 2020:

      Oh, good question! The first step is to understand what is causing the disease. Is it genetic, caused by a virus, bacteria, parasite, exposure to harmful substances, or is it caused by changes to something like DNA? Then you have to understand what the disease is doing to the molecules in the body and find something to target because you need to treat the patients. For diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and other parasites you need two approaches: drugs to cure the patient, and a way to control the thing that causes the disease to stop people being infected. Example: some mosquitos carry a parasite that causes malaria. We have drugs to treat malaria but we can also use pesticides, mosquito nets, bug spray, and other things to stop people being infected in the first place. Other diseases are eradicated because we develop herd immunity because we have a vaccine. We managed to eradicate a disease called Small Pox because we had a vaccine for it that worked really well, and a really good programme of vaccinating everyone. You have to understand the disease really well to work out the best way to tackle it so lots of research is needed.
      When a new disease appears, we have to start researching all of this stuff at once so that we can work out what’s causing it, how to treat people with it, and how to stop people catching it. You’re probably hearing all about these approaches for covid-19 right now: things we have to do to avoid catching it, things we do if we do catch it to stop spreading it, and medicines and vaccines that are being developed to help.