Let’s Talk Drugs: greenReactions Public Dialogue @ Café Scientifique

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On Wednesday 3rd of June four early career researchers from the University of York drew the story of pharmaceuticals, from discovery, through manufacturing, resistance and the downstream economical and environmental effects. The event, within the Café Scientifique series of talks, was organised in association with the York Philosophical Society.
Kyriakos Tzafestas, final year PhD student from CNAP (Centre for Novel Agricultural Products), introduced the talks and chaired the lively discussion.

Enzyme Exploration and Drug Discovery

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Maria M. Razalan, 3rd Year PhD researcher, from CNAP as well, spoke about the challenges of finding novel pharmaceuticals and how the research in the lab can be transferred to industry: how the sustainability, cost, commercialisation can affect the research and trials that are funded and therefore the drugs that are sought after most. The discussion drew out how much funding and research resources can affect our future. The pros and cons of either natural or synthetic processing of drugs was discussed and how the extraction / synthesis methods must be taken into account.

The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance

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The following talk was focused on antibiotic resistance, with Dr. Robert Howlett, a research associate in Prof. Maggie Smith’s group at the University of York. Rob works to determine how glycosylation patterns (sugar coating) on the bacterial cell surface help them to resist a variety of antibiotics. The mechanism by which the glycosylation (addition of sugar molecules to a protein) occurs may be important for a number of processes in the bacteria, such as how it detects antibiotics, or how antibiotics bind to the bacteria. This may lead to possible dual treatments whereby one drug could attack the glycosylation system, leaving it open to attack by antibiotics.

The rise of antibiotics resistance is a major global problem and issues surrounding the concern were discussed. Many people are aware of the use of antibiotics as preventative measures; this is especially prevalent in farming to prevent animals becoming ill in the condition they are kept in. This needs to be looked at as a bigger picture of society rather than just the farmer, as the society we live in is one which wants cheap food and is driven by profit; this means that the farmers need to ensure the highest yield possible. Supplementing the animals food with antibiotics is cheaper than the loss ensued by the loss of individual animals through treating them specifically.

Doctors have been aware of the issue of antibiotic resistance for many years but poor diagnostic tools in some cases may mean that at times antibiotics are prescribed when unnecessary or in cases where they would not aid recovery. Poor diagnosis is a key part of the increase in the probability of antibiotic resistance. Research into diagnostics may aid the reduction of misdiagnosis. Members of the audience also thought about what happens to drugs once they leave the system (animal/human) and are exposed to the environment: into the soil and waterways where many bacteria are found.

Making Pharmaceuticals

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Next was Giulia Paggiola, a PhD candidate at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence. She began by showing the impact of medicines in our life with a British Museum piece made of two strips of cloth containing the average amount of drugs taken by a man and a woman in a lifetime. This piece, entitled “Cradle to Grave” by Pharmacopoeia, can be viewed at the British Museum.  Giulia’s research looks into the use of alternative “green” solvents for the production of pharmaceuticals to make their production more sustainable. A specific example being using limonene as a solvent. Limonene is an oil found in orange peel, which is a waste product from the orange juice industry. Most solvents used in the pharmaceutical industry come from fossil fuel and this seems to be the favourite choice driven by lower prices, more suppliers and cross-relations between oil companies and big pharma.
On the other hand, the introduction of green solvents for the production/processing of existing drugs comes as a huge additional cost, as the production needs optimisation and pharmaceutical effects re-evaluated. Implementing the use of green solvents would increase the demand and therefore the amount that is viable to produce thereby driving forward the green solvent industry. This would make green solvents more accessible to companies and therefore make increase their publicity, ensuring that people are aware of the level of sustainability that companies show. Before companies implement these solvents into their general practice they must see evidence that this will benefit them and that they are as efficient as the petrochemically derived solvent.

Pharmaceuticals in the environment

Copy of DSC_0908Finally, Jennifer Chapman, a doctoral student from the Environment department, gave an overview of her project, which aims at the evaluation of the socio-economic and environmental benefits/costs of pharmaceutical usage in veterinary medicine. Attention was given to the importance of how different applications of veterinary medicines can result in many different pathways for pharmaceuticals to enter and impact the environment. A case-study was introduced by polling the audience’s preference on a picture of a steak and a vulture, yes you read correctly, a steak and a vulture! The surprising link between these two comes from the use of the anti-inflammatory drug, Diclofenac, on cattle in India. Corpses of cattle previously treated with diclofenac were eaten by vultures. Due to metabolic differences Diclofenac has fatal effects on vultures.  A significant environmental impact was seen as two vulture species collapsed by an estimated  96.8% and 99.9% between 1992 and 2007. Impacts to human health from the increase in dogs and therefore rabies incidents were estimated to cost 34 billion USD over the period 1993-2006. Further cultural effects were not valued. For example one culture traditional used “Towers of Silence”. Here the deceased are exposed to scavengers instead of being buried. Vultures were a primary scavenger and their loss has impacted this tradition. From the diclofenac example the importance of environmental costs of pharmaceutical usage was clearly illustrated. The consideration of environmental risks joint with the socio-economic benefits is therefore very important.

The Discussion:

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The debate following the talks engaged the whole audience to put forward their opinions and thoughts about what they’d heard. A main point was for a move away from oil dependency. This underpins the core of the problem: without oil we can’t do anything. New sources  could be waste biomass or by-products  This change needs to come from consumer pressure and through the passing of policy to make the EU drive forwards its efforts as well as encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. The main issue with policy is that implementation takes too long and therefore on the changing of governmental control impacts on the policies passed.
Misconceptions in science can be communicated through the media as those reporting on stories are there to sell a story (regardless of it being truthful) and are not themselves scientists. This can direct consumer perception and demand in the wrong direction. This could be easily solved if more scientists were journalists although as in the case of David Nutt, who was asked to resign after claiming ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. The mismatch between public perception as well as the conclusion that politicians wanted. This is not how science works!

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The current issue is not new drugs being made green. The more pressing issue is the greening of our current pharmaceuticals. This is expensive, not only from the point of view of technology development, but also for the clinical trials that would have to be carried out on the “new” product (is it as active and as efficient as the oil-produced one?). This means that making greener, responsible products implies very high costs. But who should bear the cost: consumers or companies? Is it fair to make the consumers pay more? This is a difficult question to answer especially as drugs are something that many cannot live without. In this age of austerity, should we be forced to pay more for a product that is greener when what you can afford is the cheaper oil derived product? This is putting people’s lives at stake through their individual financial situation.

Companies look for the economic gain, a historical example being antibiotic. At the same time as antibiotics were discovered phage-based treatments to kill bacterial infections were being researched. Antibiotics were less specific to the individual bacteria and therefore cheaper for companies to research. Now that antibiotic resistance is becoming a serious issue, new antibiotics are being looked for although the research into phage was abandoned as the antibiotics were effective across a wider range of infections. Today phage therapies may be our only option.

– contributed by Ruth Haley

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