04 April 2008

Where do your drugs come from?

In our household, we take our prescriptions to a locally owned pharmacy, one of the last in the area I'm sure. But we need to look further back; a few weeks back there was a contaminant found in the popular blood thinner heparin called attention not just to drugs made in China, but to what the actual chemicals are derived from. In the case of heparin, the answer is pig intestines, and the pictures of Chines peasants cleaning pig intestines in their homes has made some people think.

Seeking Alternatives to Animal-Derived Drugs

Before we genetically modified bacteria to take over the job many drugs were made from animal products, insulin and growth hormones to name just two. But some things just don't transfer well, and heparin is actually a mixture of disaccharides and just one doesn't work the quite same as all of them together. That makes the synthetic version, with only one of the disaccharides, more expensive and less effective.

“Any time you take a tissue or an extract process from a tissue from one species and put it into a another species or even another animal, you run the risk of unwanted pathogens that you didn’t know were there; that’s been responsible for repeated problems over the course of time,” Dr. Brown said. “If you can do something without taking tissue or a product from another being, you’re ahead of the game.”
Specifically they discuss the threat of prion disease, like mad cow but from pigs. With chemicals that are extracted, you don't have to worry about rejection because, hopefully, its pure enough to not have anything that would provoke an immune response.

But the article doesn't focus on heparin, but rather on the enzymes that people with cystic fibrosis need to live and digest food properly. A pharmaceutical company is working on a process that uses microbes rather than pigs to produce the enzyme, much like insulin is now, but its not finished yet.

“You don’t ever know what’s going to happen to pigs,” said Dr. Campbell of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “We wanted redundancy in the system and a backup. If there was a recall of these products for six months, a number of people would die.”
Thats what it really comes down to, redundancy. If there is only one source, that source could be animal, vegetable or mineral, a recall is a recall. Thats another reason pharmaceutical monopolies are bad, if one company goes under, has their plants shut down, or relies on the same tainted Chinese manufacturers, there are humans that would suffer for lack of their drug.

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