News / Science Cafe

OU prof discusses pharmaceutical drugs, their discovery and approval


By Ryan Powers

Drugs, time, money and why citizens should care: these were the topics of Ohio University‘s most recent Science Café. Specifically, the discussion revolved around pharmaceutical drugs, such as how they are discovered and how they are approved for the market.

Science Café lectures are held every other Wednesday in the Front Room. The most recent Science Café, held on March 19, was entitled “Modern Drug Discovery” and was led by Dr. Mark C. McMills, an organic chemistry professor at OU.

McMills said people should know about pharmaceutical drugs, because people often put them into their bodies. Also, drug companies often spend years and billions of dollars in order to get their drug through FDA regulations, according to McMills.

The FDA approval process is strenuous and often exhausts much of the 17-year patents most companies obtain for their drugs.

Jacob Supinski, a freshman pre-nursing major at OU, said the time and monetary costs of drug approval are “insane” and potentially problematic.

“It undermines the effectiveness that drugs could have,” Supinski said. “If a drug potentially is very useful and could save millions of lives, it’s going to take countless years to get it out and into the community.”

The cost of gaining FDA approval also restricts who can seek it out. McMills and his lab are researching methods to make more effective anti-cancer drugs, but if they succeed, they would not be able to seek FDA approval alone. McMills said he would hope for a large company like Pfizer to pay for the trials.

In order to be approved, however, drugs must first be discovered. McMills said there are three ways modern drugs are discovered: serendipity, through a natural product and through rational drug design.

According to McMills, the majority of drugs used today co me from natural products, but many drug companies are neglecting this source of beneficial drugs.

“Natural products are an important way for us to come up with new products every day,” McMills said. “I hope drug companies will go back to that.”

For instance, the drug taxol was originally found in Pacific Yew bark and is now used to attack cancer cells.

It is also possible for drugs to be discovered serendipitously, or through happy accidents. Scientific discoveries often happen this way, but the example used by McMills was the discovery of penicillin, which was discovered when British physician Sir Alexander Fleming noticed a bacteria-killing mold in a petri dish while cleaning his lab.

On the other side of the spectrum reside drugs discovered through rational design. These are drugs developed by people who know the problem they want to address and chemically make drugs to do so.

One such drug is daranuvir, a drug developed and now used to combat the HIV virus. McMills explained that in 1994 and 1995, AIDS deaths in the United States dropped dramatically due to the implementation of darunavir.

McMills hopes people will use what they learned from his Science Café presentation to think critically about pharmaceutical drugs.

Supinski said he hopes to use the information in his future research and nursing career. “Once I graduate, I want to go and so some research on my own, even though my major is nursing,” Supinski said. “It will help me have more physical understanding of how chemicals work in the body.”

The next and final Science Café of the semester will be held on April 2. The topic will be psychology.

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