A Pharmaceutical Lecture by Gwenan White

Hello!! A couple of days ago I attended a pharmaceutical based lecture at my school, spoken by a woman who works for the company AbbVie, a comparatively small company specialising in virology, immunology, neuroscience and oncology. It was far more interesting and relevant to me than I initially thought it might be, and I took away some key lessons which I thought I would share with you.

It typically takes around 12 years to bring a medicine to life – over a decade of isolating compounds and mixing constituents and clinical trials. What interested me within this process was the use of animal testing. Animal rights are something I feel strongly about and if I’m honest, I’ve always been opposed to their use in science. However, recently I attended a lecture on the ‘naked mole rat’ (hopefully a blog post to follow!) and then this lecture, which has made me consider the benefits and boundaries of using animals in science. While I won’t dwell on the use of the naked mole rat too much as it is something I’d like to write about later, it was a talk which demonstrated to me a clear ethical and moral use of animals in research. In the pharmaceutical industry however, it is not always clear how these animals may react to the drugs within their systems. Although, it was emphasised to me that as few a animals as possible are used with the most effecting but least affective (in terms of side affects) treatment option primarily. Or surrogate models can be used preventing the need for animals. This showed me the diverse range of steps needed to take a medicine to market, and that medicines must not only be effective and ethical but also cost effective.

The ethos of the AbbVie  in the talk was that they aim to combine the expertise and stability of traditional pharma with the focus, culture and innovative spirit of biotech. This really summed up the state of modern science and medicine for me, we are in a stage where we a gradually moving away from the reliable treatments and options for those which may be slightly more risky but give patients better quality of life post treatment. For instance, when watching the BBC documentary ‘Hospital’ last week I was captivated by the innovative treatment of a 98 year old man. He first, had a compressed heart valve inserted into his heart through a blood vessel in his leg, which was then synchronised with the contraction of his heart using a screen. However, the incredible surgical techniques didn’t stop there, he later had a wire mesh inserted into an artery which led to his brain to remove a clot causing him a stroke and possible brain damage. This being a thrombectomy, which if carried out within 6 hours of a stroke results in full blood flow and a reduced risk of brain damage. Similarly, in the same documentary a new treatment method was used to treat an 18 year old girl with Sickle Cell disease, where her immune system was depleted using chemotherapy and radiotherapy allowing her to engraft bone marrow with a match of only 50%. This is an incredible feat. Linking this back to the lecture, it is through combining new ideas and treatment methods with the stability of old ones which medicine can and is advancing.

Like much of the news these days, the talk did also mention that out current healthcare system is not sustainable – we have an ageing population and more than 1/4 of people in the UK have a chronic illness. All of which need treatment and all of which costs money. A statistic which was raised is that every 36 hours 1,000,000 people pass through the NHS, and we do not have a healthcare system which can deal with that demand. What we do have however, is new means of empowering patients to look after themselves – who hasn’t seen an advert for an online GP? Or advice from the NHS website? What is crucial is that doctors need recognise the role of the patient in their own treatment – diet and lifestyle choice can hugely influence what treatment a person may later need, but also knowing when and when not to see a doctor of GP is crucial. The NHS does not, essentially, have time to waste. Having said that, there should be no ‘fear of finding out’ what the doctor has to say, and people should not avoid the GP Surgery because they are scared they are ill – they should act quickly and potentially save their own live, or give themselves years. If not, at least just peace of mind.

So these are some of the key ideas I took from a pharmaceutical lecture I thought would just be about the development of drugs, which was actually much more patient focused for an industry which is not allowed direct patient contact – charities and organisations on patient’s behalf must be used instead. Therefore, I would encourage everyone to attend some science or medicine based lectures, and not to be afraid to take notes. Taking notes is what I’ve found has really allowed me to write up and reflect on what I’ve learnt, and that’s definitely worth more than a few snide comments. I hope you’ve found this interesting and hopefully I will write more reflections on lectures in the future.

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