About the Zone

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Scientists are frequently coming up with new treatments for various kinds of illnesses, many of which will be a new drug. So where do these drugs come from?

The hardest part of the process of developing a new drug is to find the main compound or molecule which works against a particular disease. Scientists might test a whole range of different chemicals to see if they affect the particular disease, gene or body tissue that they want to treat. Alternatively a scientist might discover by chance that a molecule has a particular effect and decide to test it out, perhaps seeing if slightly different variations of the molecule work better or worse.

If a scientist does have a drug that seems to work, the next step is to make sure that it isn’t also harmful to the body. They have to do lots and lots of tests to make sure it is safe before they give it to a human. In many cases they can use the drug on cells in a test tube to see if it’s harmful, but scientists also need to use animals in order to make sure the drug is safe in the complicated and changeable environment of a body.

Image by Linda Bartlett

When they think that the drug is safe they begin human clinical trials. Even thought everything looks good so far, the scientists still need to make sure that there are no unexpected side-effects from the drug and that the drug does actually work. They use two groups of people – one group get given the drug, and the other group get given a plain tablet with no drug in. None of the people know whether they’ve been given the real drug or not, but the scientists can compare the two groups to see whether the drug has helped at all!

If the drug can be proved to work then the company that paid for the development work will package it up and sell it around the world. While it seems unfair to make people pay for drugs that could save their lives, if companies didn’t make any money from it then they wouldn’t pay the scientists to find new drugs at all. Many poor people need lots of money from charities to be able to afford new drugs.

Loads of new drugs are discovered every year, but most never make it through the development process. Either they turn out to have some horrible side-effects or they just don’t seem to work when tested on humans. A few drugs are useful however, and these help the human race live longer and healthier lives around the world.