Why is biology important to the Pharmaceutical Industry? Biologists have an important role to play in the exciting discovery of new medicines.
Once a company has chosen which disease to concentrate its efforts on, the disease itself needs to be thoroughly investigated and studied in detail. Biologists working on a discovery team will then use this information to take a look at the biochemical pathways (a certain series of chemical reactions that occur in the cells of the body) and pinpoint a molecular ‘target’ in the body that when stimulated or inhibited (switched on or off) will result in the treatment of the disease.
Once this molecular ‘target’ has been discovered, scientists will then develop a set of biological tests to identify chemical compounds which will affect the ‘target’. Each chemical compound that is revealed to affect the ‘target’ molecule is called a ‘hit’. The whole process is automated so that hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds are tested very quickly.
Each ‘hit’ will be followed up by making and testing similar molecules called ‘leads’. ‘Lead’ compounds will be tested in a number of ways to find out which is likely to have the highest level of beneficial activity in the body to successfully treat the disease.
However, due to the interaction with parts of the body that are not the target, some ‘leads’ have dangerous side effects, limiting the designing of many medicines for diseases such as neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.
One chemical compound will eventually be selected as a 'candidate' to be made into a medicine but will need to be tested for toxicity to cells, animals and ultimately humans. If the medicine exhibits a side effect, it needs to be decided whether the benfit of potentially curing the patient outweighs the side effects that may occur. A successful medicine will need to reach the right part of the body and will need to remain in the body long enough so that doses don’t have to be taken too frequently.
Many different biology specialists (e.g. pharmacologists, toxicologists and molecular biologists) are involved throughout the discovery and development of a medicine and each has a vital role. If you would like to know more about the work of a biologist, visit the Case studies section of the website for a selection of interviews with young scientists.
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