Drug discovery and development

09 Sep 2008
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Scotland, could make a fair claim to be called the home of medical science given the huge contributions the country has made in the study and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and diabetes.

Scotland, could make a fair claim to be called the home of medical science given the huge contributions the country has made in the study and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and diabetes. The impact made by Scottish doctors, scientists and pharmacists over the past century has been remarkable. And this excellence in life sciences continues today.

Penicillin, beta-blockers, interferon, anti-ulcer drugs, anti-asthma treatments and a whole host of other medical innovations owe their development wholly, or in part, to the work pioneered in Scotland.

A Breakthrough in the Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease

A true measure of success comes not from academic excellence but from the impact the science has on real people and real lives individuals like Sandra Sutherland from the north east of Scotland. In 2005 she was diagnosed with the devastating brain condition Alzheimer's disease. The future for Sandra, and for her family, who would have to care for her as her memory failed and her condition worsened seemed bleak. There was one ray of hope. Sandra agreed to take part in the clinical trials of a new drug called Rember which was being developed by a team from Aberdeen University in collaboration with TauRx Therapeutics, a Singapore-based company. Rember works by targeting the tangled fibres in the brain which destroy memory cells. It is also hoped that the drug will not only prevent new tangles from forming but might also loosen those already created.

Life changing work

When the results of the trials were revealed earlier this year they caused headline news across the world. Rember was shown to be more than twice as effective in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease as any other current treatment, slowing the progress of the condition by more than 80 per cent. Professor Claude Wishchik, who led the research, called it the biggest breakthrough in a century of study. "This is the most significant development in the treatment of the tangles since Alois Alzheimer discovered them in 1907."

For Sandra, and others like her on the trial, the work by the Aberdeen team has been truly life changing. She told a national newspaper that "When I was diagnosed I was absolutely gobsmacked. Since I have been on the trial I feel more confident, more positive. I think my condition has levelled off and not got any worse." Rember potentially offers hope to millions who would otherwise be in despair. Although it could be several years before the drug is freely available on prescription it can only be hoped that it, and its inventors, will one day be spoken of in the same way as Sir Alexander Fleming and the discovery of Penicillin.

Drug pioneers

Ayrshire-born Fleming could not claim to have laboured long and hard on a creation that would revolutionise medicine. But that's what he achieved by accident. On his return from holiday in 1928 Fleming noticed that several of the culture dishes he had been working on had been contaminated by mould. But where the mould had grown the bacteria was apparently unable to develop. From this chance discovery the world's first anti-biotic was born.

Sir Alexander Fleming was not the first, and would be far from the last, Scottish scientist to make a telling contribution to the world. Thirty years after Penicillin, another miracle drug in the shape of Interferon was developed by Scots virologist Alick Isaacs. This naturally occurring protein has been invaluable in the fight against infection and in the development of radical new drugs and treatments, including those to combat hepatitis C. Other, equally significant medical milestones that were pioneered by Scots include Sir David Jack's anti-asthma treatment Salbutamol in the late 1960's. Now taken for granted, this drug and subsequent advances have brought relief to millions of sufferers. Sir James Black is feted for his invention of beta-blockers as an effective treatment for heart conditions. Yet his determination to work with the pharmaceutical industry to combat coronary artery disease was initially regarded with great scepticism by his peers. Winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 confirmed his place in the annals of 20th century pharmacology.

Of all modern diseases, cancer is still the one that provokes most fear and, in spite of decades of study, is still a long way from being conquered. But a vaccine developed by Scots born, and Australian based, immunologist Ian Fraser promises to radically reduce levels of cervical cancer. Fraser, who was named Australian of the Year in 2006 in recognition of his achievement, has likened Gardasil to the polio jab. In extensive trials it provided almost 100 per cent protection from cancer and though controversial amongst some, the drug is now being adopted all over the world. It is perhaps fitting, given that it owes its origins to a Scot, that the Scottish public health minister Shona Robison has just unveiled what she called "one of the biggest and most complex immunisation programmes" in the nation's history. More than 180,000 girls and young women will be offered the injection, and with it protection against a killer disease, over the next two years.

Scottish life sciences today

Scottish scientists are still at the forefront of leading edge research. There are a significant number of life sciences companies specifically focused on drug discovery and development based in Scotland. And this sector is growing at double the European average. There are now more than thirty university departments and research institutes in Scotland conducting drug discovery related study, and many have spawned successful spin off companies to take the research into the commercial market.

There are also a number of rapidly growing specialist pharmaceutical companies such as ProStrakan, which is based in the Scottish Borders. One of its most recent and successful innovations was the production of a patch which prevents chemotherapy induced nausea. There is a critical mass in the size and extent of the drug discovery industry with production of new antibiotics, the development of different technologies for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and new ways to combat infectious diseases particularly prominent.

The highly-skilled workforce and world-renowned facilities contribute greatly to this success. With just 9% of the British population, Scotland produces more than 30% of first degrees and a fifth of UK higher degrees in microbiology, and there is a similar story to tell in medicine, medical technology and veterinary science.

And backing up the workforce, the research, the facilities and the reputation there is something else that is uniquely Scottish. It is Scotland itself. A place not just where great work can be done, but a great place to live as well. Ten years ago Organon invested millions of pounds in a new drug discovery research complex in central Scotland, making it one of the biggest in the UK. The Executive Director of Organon has never looked back. "From a career perspective the move (to Scotland) has proved successful. From a personal point of view, we really enjoy living here and the lifestyle is great."

Interested in finding out more about life sciences in Scotland?

University of Aberdeen announcement on Rember

Work in the Scottish life sciences industry

Do business with the Scottish life sciences industry

Study medicine in Scotland

More on Ian Frazer

More on Alexander Fleming

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