5 developments for the pharmaceutical sector to look out for
The pharmaceutical industry is fast-paced and new drugs are being honed all the time.
Figures provided by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) in 2012 suggested that US$135 billion is spent on global research and development (R&D) every year.
Scientists are making regular breakthroughs, but only a minority actually lead to new drugs. According to the IFPMA, just 35 new pharmaceuticals were launched in 2011, despite the fact researchers had worked on 3,200 compounds over the course of the year.
Although the R&D of just one treatment can take more than a decade, the time, effort and money that goes into drug creation can save a huge number of lives. Here are five recent discoveries that have the potential to make an impact in the pharmaceutical industry in the years to come.
A treatment for Crohn's?
Researchers at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth believe they may have identified a protein that can protect people against bowel disorders such as Crohn's disease.
The team found that 'Pellino3' is able to prevent chronic swelling in the intestines and Professor Paul Moynagh - who led the study - hailed the breakthrough as a "major advancement in our understanding of inflammatory diseases of the digestive system". The findings have now been published in the Nature Immunology journal and could pave the way for future treatments.
"My hope is that we can build on these findings and use Pellino3 as a new diagnostic for Crohn's disease and as a target for new drug discovery," Mr Moynagh remarked.
At the moment, upwards of two million people across Europe are thought to suffer from Crohn's disease.
The holy grail: a cure for cancer
Many people that specialise in pharmaceutical R&D have one dream - to find a cure for cancer. The most recent World Health Organisation statistics showed that 7.6 million people died from the disease across the globe in 2008 and although survival rates are steadily improving, an overriding cure still eludes researchers.
However, scientists at Harvard University recently stated that in certain circumstances 'two-drug combinations' can help to eliminate the deadly condition. The team found that cancer cells eventually become resistant to single drugs, which is why administering a dual treatment is the way forward.
There is much work to be done before a cure is found, but co-author of the report Martin Nowak told the Harvard Gazette that this discovery could be important in the long run.
"What this means is we have to develop drugs [so] that the cancer needs to make two independent steps - if we can do that, we have a good chance to contain it," he commented.
To help matters further, a team from the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida believe they have identified four inherited genetic variants in non-small cell lung cancer patients that can help them predict the effectiveness of medication. The group suggested the results could open up more personalised treatments in the future.
A lot of great work is going into finding advanced drugs for what is still one of the biggest killers on the planet. Even so, it could be a long time before pharmacists are able to administer medication that completely prevents the debilitating disease.
TMJD - an under-reported condition
Although pharmacists will know all about temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD), it is not a condition people from a non-medical background will be familiar with. While cases of TMJD are perhaps under-reported, there is undoubtedly a big problem.
It is the most common form of oral and facial pain in the world and affects more than ten million people in the US alone. The disorder can cause chronic discomfort when biting or chewing and there is a distinct lack of available treatments on the market. However, this may not be the case for too much longer.
Having conducted studies on mice, researchers at Duke Medicine discovered a protein they think is critical to TMJD pain and the results have been published in the journal PAIN. Wolfgang Liedtke, associate professor of neurology and neurobiology at Duke, said the team concentrated on TRPV4 - an ion channel protein that allows calcium to enter cells - and how this causes TMJD.
"TRPV4 is widely expressed in sensory neurons found in the trigeminal ganglion, which is responsible for all sensations of the head, face and their associated structures, such as teeth, the tongue and temporomandibular joint," he commented.
"This pattern and the fact that TRPV4 has been found to be involved in response to mechanical stimulation made it a logical target to explore."
Mr Liedtke hopes drug developers can now focus on this protein and come up with some therapies that will make life easier for people who have this condition.
Can scientists help people overcome addictions?
Countries all over the world are fighting a constant battle against drug addiction and current treatments aimed at helping people wean themselves off dangerous substances only have a limited impact. A worrying rise in the number of people misusing drugs has undoubtedly made pharmacists' jobs a lot harder and scientists are looking for new solutions that help patients overcome their addictions without suffering too many side-effects.
There have been some positive developments in the US, where researchers have been scrutinising the way certain compounds target the kappa opioid receptor (KOR). This plays a role in the release of dopamine, which is key to drug addiction.
Having analysed the cells of animals, the KOR has now become the focus for scientists who are hoping to develop new drugs that combat addiction and mood disorders. The findings from various studies conducted at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in Florida have been published in the August edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Laura Bohn, a TSRI associate professor, said: "There are a number of drug discovery efforts ongoing for KOR. The ultimate question is how this receptor should be acted upon to achieve the best therapeutic effects.
"Our study identifies a marker that shows how things normally happen in live neurons - a critically important secondary test to evaluate potential compounds."
The current dearth of long-term treatments for drug addiction is costing countries huge sums of money, so governments all over the world will be hoping these encouraging discoveries are transformed into effective therapies sooner rather than later.
How 50 million people could benefit from better epilepsy treatments
Modern technology has certainly helped speed up the R&D process - a point that was recently emphasised by researchers in the US and Australia. A team made up of medical experts from the University of Melbourne, the University of California and Austin Hospital, Duke University have been using advanced gene technology known as exome sequencing to highlight new genes that cause severe forms of epilepsy in children.
This neurological disorder affects some 50 million people worldwide, so any treatments that emanate from these preliminary studies have the potential to make a big difference. Co-study leader Professor Sam Berkovic, director of the Epilepsy Research Centre at the University of Melbourne and Austin Hospital, thinks this latest worldwide project - which has cost US$25 million - represents a major breakthrough.
"These findings will help to fast-track discoveries of the genetic causes of some of the most devastating childhood epilepsies, many of which had been previously unknown," he remarked.
The future of the pharmaceutical industry
These are just a handful of studies that could have a huge impact on the pharmaceutical sector in the next decade, but there are many more. Of course, some have more potential than others and some are further along in the R&D cycle, but it is encouraging to see scientists are making breakthroughs on a consistent basis.
While there is a general feeling throughout the industry that some game-changing new drugs and treatments are currently being developed, many challenges remain. Drug developers are coming under more pressure to justify the cost of R&D projects and overall success rates are still relatively low. With the global economy showing signs of recovery, it will be intriguing to see if more money is invested in the development of potentially life-saving treatments in the coming years.