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How does medicine work? How are new drugs made? What role does the pharmaceutical industry play? Professors Stefan Knapp and Chas Bountra work in the field of drug discovery. They joined Science Oxford talks in spring 2013.

What is the situation for drug discovery?

Society is increasingly desperate for novel medicine. Most drugs used today were developed more than 40 years ago. With our ageing population, the incidence of diseases such as dementia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer will increase exponentially over the coming years.

What is the fundamental problem?

The cost of drug discovery is spiraling out of control. To deliver novel medicine, we need to hit novel proteins, but fewer than one in ten medicines tested in human clinical trials succeed. Part of the problem is that pharmaceutical companies often work on the same proteins, in parallel and in secret; everybody reads the same literature, goes to the same conferences, and talks to the same opinion leaders. As a result of so many competing trials, we are unnecessarily exposing patients to molecules that other companies already know are destined for failure.

Our success rate is so poor because we do not fully understand human disease. Our knowledge of what causes Alzheimer's, schizophrenia or depression is very limited. For many of these diseases we don't have good clinical read-outs of clinical trials and we don't know how common drugs work, such as paracetamol. If we don't understand how drugs work, how can we design better ones?

What are we trying to do about it?

With support from the most senior academics within the University of Oxford, the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) publishes all of its results, freely and immediately. Due to this open access philosophy academics around the world now want to set up collaborations with the SGC – currently over 250 academic labs. Since the SGC doesn't take out Intellectual Property, it has also attracted partnerships with eight of the largest pharmaceutical companies around the world. SGC has also attracted substantial public funds, and patient groups are coming forward and help recruit for trials. Regulators are also helping by designing new types of clinical studies, which will help validate new biomarkers and pave the way for new targets.

Once these resources and expertise are pooled, we will increase our chances of delivering new drugs to patients.

Professor Chas Bountra

Professor Chas Bountra is interested in identifying and validating target proteins for drug discovery. Various technologies and strategies have allowed him to progress promising clinical candidates into Phase I, II, III studies, and to market. These new drugs offer novel treatments for neurodegenerative and gastrointestinal diseases, as well as pain disorders.

Science Oxford Live

In spring 2013, the Nuffield Department of Medicine teamed up with Science Oxford Live for their Healthy Season. This engaging and interactive series of evening lectures exploring health, disease, genetics, drug discovery and some of the most topical challenges facing science and medicine today, was a great success.