Of all the many inventions of science, pharmaceutical advances may yet be the greatest of all development. The prolongation of life was the number one item on Boyle’s list.
Already agriculturists like Jethro Tull had transformed the efficiency of Britain’s food production. Now it was the turn of other practical men to improve things still further. Electricity, once just an interesting sideshow, was moved to centre stage. Joseph Swan produced the electric light bulb, transforming the life by extending the useful day. In 1837, Wheatstone and Cooke’s electric telegraph shrank the world almost overnight.
And 40 years later, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone shrank it still further.
Britons designed steam turbines, commercialised steel production, produced vacuum cleaners and made artificial hips. This was science at its crowd-pleasing best. Progress made, lives transformed, wealth generated. It’s what the Royal Society promised to do all those years ago. Fulfilment of the dreams expressed in Boyle’s rather bizarre list.
Professor Brian Cox “I mean, we’ve even been able to emulate fish through the invention of the aqualung and submarines. But let’s not forget item 1 on Boyle’s list, the prolongation of life.”
This is the area of targeted science that we surely care about most of all – the extension of our lives through the development of new drugs and new treatments. This is an area in which Britain has always excelled.
Companies like Glaxo, Beecham and Wellcome were at the forefront of pharmaceutical advances and manufacture in Britain for most of the 20th century. The British pharmaceutical industry has produced drugs from penicillin to Zantac. They have pioneered antibiotic medicine, enabled mass vaccination and made many previously-fatal conditions treatable.
Today, those companies in Britain exist as the fourth-largest pharmaceutical company in the world – GlaxoSmithKline. A part of an industry worth an estimated £200 billion a year. And it’s not a business that hangs around waiting for happy accidents.
GSK is behind many of the pharmaceuticals that are commonplace in today’s market, from painkillers to asthma inhalers.
One of their biggest research and development hubs is here, on home soil, 20 miles north of London in Stevenage.
Dr Tom Webb “So this lab, in general, this is the early discovery within biofarm…”
Dr Tom Webb joined GSK three years ago and has been working to develop new drugs ever since.
How do you do it? I mean, if somebody comes along from management to GSK and said, “Right, we need a drug to treat arthritis. A new one.” What do you do?
Dr Tom Webb “So… it’s an incredibly complex process. Drug discovery takes 10 to 15 years. It starts off with a target in mind for treating that disease and then we start off with huge libraries. Those might be libraries of small molecules, so containing tens of thousands of different chemical compounds, and it’s starting with all of these potential medicines and really whittling them down to one candidate, one medicine.”
So that sounds a very, very… A targeted approach. You have a specific example, a specific challenge in mind. It’s a beautiful example, isn’t it, of a… a… Almost like an industrial-scale search.
Dr Tom Webb “Absolutely. For useful antibodies or useful drugs. Sure. And we are getting better and better at doing it as we gain more experience.”
The screenings done at pharmaceutical companies such as GSK allow researchers to test millions of different compounds, antibodies or genes to see if they’ll work as part of a new drug or treatment. The scale of the work means the chance of success over conventional research methods is dramatically increased.
Dr Tom Webb “One of GSK’s medicines is a treatment for lupus. Lupus is a disease which hasn’t seen any new treatments for 50 years. And as a result of this really sort of strategic way of working, having a target in mind and developing a medicine for that target using a library, has enabled us to market this medicine in lupus.”
Sufferers of lupus are often plagued with tiredness, skin rashes, joint pains and the swelling as their immune system attacks the body’s own healthy cells. Symptoms this new drug has helped to relieve. And other treatments are emerging as a product of this strategic and focused method of developing medicines.
In your view, are the great advances of the future going to come from that targeted approach because you can apply a great amount of brainpower on it, or is somewhere, Pasteur sat in this shed with a Petri dish…
Dr Tom Webb “If we were just playing around in the lab, I think the likelihood of us stumbling across a discovery that enables us to make a medicine is probably unlikely. So we have to commit to making medicines for patients, and that doesn’t happen by complete serendipity.”
The pharmaceutical industry in Britain is a triumph for home-grown science, providing cures for previously-untreatable diseases and changing the lives of millions of patients around the world.
This is an impressive place and its science on an industrial scale. And you see these vast research labs. And that’s what you need, because you have to do hundreds of thousands or even millions of individual experiments to bring a new drug to market. It also costs billions of pounds. So this is targeted science. There are particular problems that need solutions. There’s a particular disease that needs treating. And I suppose for medical science as a whole, if you can state its goal in one simple sentence, it’s to make people better.
It’s undeniable that targeted research delivers, but, and it’s a big but, there is a catch. And it’s this. In any commercial environment, specific targeting brings with it the possibility that during the process of discovery, any kind of result that doesn’t positively enhance the chance of success may be ignored.
Now, on the face of it, that seems fair enough. But in fact, it’s extremely worrying indeed. See, if you look through the History of Science, through any scientific journal, then you’ll find that the negative results are recorded, as well as the positive ones. And that’s important because all knowledge is valuable. But in a commercial setting where you’re asking a question, “Can we find a drug to cure this particular disease, to do this particular job?”. Then the temptation is to ignore the negative results. This is almost anti-knowledge. It goes against the ethos of science. And, more importantly, it closes the doors to some magnificent, serendipitous discoveries.