Ibuprofen and the fertile imagination

There is an astounding variety of painkillers available for purchase both in supermarkets, chemists, and corner shops. Just take a look at the shelf of your nearest Tesco or Sainsbury. You have various types of paracetamol, both made by pharmaceutical companies as well as in house versions of the supermarkets.

What is the difference between them and why are there so many varieties?

When pharmaceutical companies take on the decision to manufacture a new drug, they are given a twenty-year patent which covers the research into the product, testing and manufacturing, and sales. The period of twenty years, a monopoly as such, is to reward them for the time invested into the research. In the course of the research into the product, pharmaceutical companies must publish various forms of medical evidence and put it into public domain, so that if there is any medical evidence that points to the contrary, these can be debated both by the medical community and the pharmaceutical world.

The problem, if we can call it that, is that business is a very competitive world, and if research is put out in the open without any form of intellectual protection, any manufacturer can pounce on the research undertaken by someone else who has taken the effort and trouble to do it, and produce their product off the back of it. They would have saved the time and cost investment.

Imagine if a writer has taken the time to research a topic, organise his thoughts succinctly, and find a publisher. And when his book is published, someone else photocopies it, binds the copied pages and subsequently peddles it as their own.

Within the period of twenty years, a pharmaceutical company has to research, market and sell enough of the product to recoup the investment costs and profit. It is after the twenty period has expired that the other sharks enter the fray. This is where you get the supermarket brands of the product, which are cheaper because they don’t need to pay for research.

What is the difference between brand names and generics? They essentially do the same thing. But if the original company has done a good job in making the product synonymous with its own brand, then you might think they are better. If you take Neurofen for headaches, then you might think it better than Tesco ibuprofen, even though they both contain the same active ingredient.

But pharmaceutical companies have to reinvent themselves, to make varieties of the same product, otherwise they will lose their market share and eventually die out. If you realise that Neurofen is matched in ability by the cheaper Tesco ibuprofen, you would buy the latter, unless you are persuaded that Neurofen for Flus and Colds, or Neurofen Muscle Pain has something clinically formulated for that specific purpose.

So the shelves of supermarkets are stacked with different priced products with the same active ingredient, as well as different varieties of the same product.

Painkillers are a common medicine because there will always be a demand for pain management.

The availability of pain relief medicine means it is easy for the average individual to obtain them. There is the possibility of overdose, and while this may be a rarity, there is a higher likelihood that the greater availability may mean individuals are taking more doses than they should.

What are the long term health impacts of taking ibuprofen for prolonged periods?

One problem is that the body adapts and so the long-term resistance is affected. In certain groups such as the elderly, aspirin also increased the risks of stomach bleeding.

A clinical trial seemed to suggest it may impact on testosterone production and hence affect fertility.

Test subjects were administered 2 x 600mg doses of ibuprofen daily for six weeks, much higher than the average dose. The sample size was only a small group of 30, and half received ibuprofen, while the others received a placebo. It would have been better if the subject group had been greater, so that there could be more confidence in the test results, but because a test of such nature is to examine human resistance to what is essentially toxicity, it would have been unethical to involve a large group of participants. The research findings found that there was no impact on testosterone already in the body, but the pain relieving nature of ibuprofen, as a relaxant of sorts, had impact on the production of testosterone and appeared to slow down production.

How did these reports end up in the media? The tabloids had a field day, and you would undoubtedly have found one with the usual wisecracks about balls and other man-related genitalia, along the lines of “Ibuprofen shrinks your balls” or “Ibuprofen smalls your balls”.

Maybe instead of Ibuprofen for colds or fast relief, we need Ibuprofen for Dummies.

One cigarette a day can cost a lot

According to the newspaper headlines of late, teenagers should be kept away from cigarette exposure because of this worrying statistic.

A survey of over 216,000 adults found that over 60% of them had been offered and tried a cigarette at some point, and of these, nearly 70% went on to become regular smokers. The conclusion drawn was that there are strong links between trying a cigarette ones to be sociable and going on to develop it as a habit.

This of course ended up in the newspapers with headlines such as “One cigarette is enough to get you hooked”. The Mail Online, Britain’s go-to newspaper for your important health news (and I’m being ironic here) went a step further, saying one puff from a cigarette was enough to get you hooked for life. Never mind if you had one draw of a cigarette, felt the nicotine reach your lungs, then coughed in revulsion at the bitter aftertaste and swore that you would never again try a cigarette again. The Mail Online bets you would return to the lure of the dark side, seduced by its nicotine offers.

I digress.

While we all know that any event, repeated many times becomes a habit, the statistics in this case are a little dubious.

The study was conducted by Queen Mary University (nothing dubious in itself) but among the various concerns were what you might call the high conversion rate. Nearly 70% of those who tried a cigarette once went on to smoke regularly as a habit.

I’m not sure why the 70% is worrying. In fact, I wonder why it is not 100%! Surely, if you asked a habitual smoker, “Have you smoked a cigarette before?”, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”!

Unless you have caught someone in the act of sneakily smoking his virgin cigarette. But he wouldn’t yet be a habitual smoker.

Let’s establish the facts of the matter again.

216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

Of the 130,000 who had tried a cigarette before, 81,000 (70%) went on to become regular smokers.

49,000 (30%) of those who tried a cigarette before either did not go on to smoke at all or did not smoke regularly.

Another way of looking at the data would be as follows:

216,000 adults surveyed.

135,000 adults do not smoke regularly or at all. Some did try once in the past.

81,000 adults smoke regularly and these people have obviously tried a cigarette before.

Suddenly the data doesn’t look sexy anymore.

The data was an umbrella studywhich means data was pooled rather than created from scratch through surveys. As previously examined, the final outcome is also dependent on the integrity of the original source.

Bias can also creep in because the data has not been directly obtained and inferences have been drawn.

For example, the influence of e-cigarettes and vaping on the results have not been scrutinised, because some of the data may have existed before then.

Before we leave it at this, here is another example of data bias:
216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

We can conclude that 100% of the 86,000 who have never smoked a cigarette in the past have never smoked a cigarette.

You can see the absurdity more when it’s spelt out more in words than in numbers.

If research is costly and expensive, in terms of money and time, then why is it wasted on these?

One reason is that it keeps academics and researchers in their jobs, if they produce findings that are financially low-cost but can stave off the question of what they actually do, and their purpose.

This kind of research is the academic version of the newspaper filler article, one that columnists generate based on the littlest of information, in order to fill the papers with “news”, that actually mask the fact that they are there to sell advertising space. And in this, columnists and researchers are at times colluding for the same purpose. Vultures who tear at the carcass of a small rodent and then serve up the bits as a trussed up main meal.

Unethical? Who cares, it seems. Just mask the flawed process and don’t make it too obvious.

The bigger issues that come with preventing hearing loss

Is there cause for optimism when it comes to preventing hearing loss? Certainly the latest research into this suggests that if positive effects experienced by mice could be transferred to humans and maintained for the long term, then hereditary hearing loss could be a thing of the past.

It has always been assumed that hearing loss is always down to old age. The commonly held view is that as people grow older, their muscles and body functions deteriorate with time to the point that muscle function is impaired and eventually lost. But hearing loss is not necessarily down to age, although there are cases where constant exposure to loud noise, over time, causes reduced sensitivity to aural stimuli. Over half of hearing loss cases are actually due to inheriting faulty genetic mutations from parents.

How do we hear? The hair cells of the inner ear called the cochlea respond to vibrations and these signals are sent to the brain to interpret. The brain processes these signals in terms of frequency, duration and timbre in order to translate them into signals we know.

For example, if we hear a high frequency sound of short duration that is shrill, our brain interprets these characteristics and then runs through a database of audio sounds, an audio library in the brain, and may come up with the suggestion that it has come from a whistle and may signify a call for attention.

What happens when you have a genetic hearing loss gene? The hairs on the inner ear do not grow back and consequently sound vibration from external stimuli do not get passed on to the brain.

With progressive hearing loss too, the characteristics of sound also get distorted. We may hear sounds differently to how they are produced, thereby misinterpreting their meaning. Sounds of higher and lower frequency may be less audible too.

How does that cause a problem? Imagine an alarm. It is set on a high frequency so that it attracts attention. If your ability to hear high frequencies is gradually dulled then you may not be able to detect the sound of an alarm going off.

As hearing gradually deteriorates, the timbre of a sound changes. Sharper sounds become duller, and in the case of the alarm, you may hear it, but it may sound more muted and the brain may not be able to recognise that it is an alarm being heard.

Another problem with hearing loss is the loss of perception of volume. You may be crossing the road and a car might sound its horn if you suddenly encroach into its path. But if you cannot hear that the volume is loud, you may perceive it to be from a car far away and may not realise you are in danger.

The loss of the hairs in the inner ear is a cause of deafness in humans, particularly those for whom hearing loss is genetic. Humans suffering from hereditary hearing loss lose the hairs of the inner ear, which result in the difficulties mentioned above. But there is hope. In a research experiment, scientists successfully delayed the loss of the hairs in the inner ear for mice using a technique that edited away the genetic mutation that causes the loss of the hairs in the cochlea.

Mice were bred with the faulty gene that caused hearing loss. But using a technology known as Crispr, the faulty gene was replaced with a healthy normal one. After about eight weeks, the hairs in the inner ears of mice with genetic predisposition to hearing loss flourished, compared to similar mice which had not been treated. The genetic editing technique had removed the faulty gene which caused hearing loss. The treated mice were assessed for responsiveness to stimuli and showed positive gains.

We could be optimistic about the results but it is important to stress the need to be cautious.

Firstly, the research was conducted on mice and not humans. It is important to state that certain experiments that have been successful in animals have not necessarily had similar success when tried on humans.

Secondly, while the benefits in mice were seen in eight weeks, it may take longer in humans, if at all successful.

Thirdly, we should remember that the experiment worked for the mice which had the genetic mutation that would eventually cause deafness. In other words, they had their hearing at birth but were susceptible to losing it. The technique prevented degeneration in hearing in mice but would not help mice that were deaf at birth from gaining hearing they never had.

Every research carries ethical issues and this one was no different. Firstly, one ethical issue is the recurring one of whether animals should ever be used for research. Should mice be bred for the purposes of research? Are all the mice used? Are they accounted for? Is there someone from Health and Safety going around with a clipboard accounting for the mice? And what happens to the mice when the research has ceased? Are they put down, or released into the ecosystem? “Don’t be silly,” I hear you say, “it’s only mice.” That’s the problem. The devaluation of life, despite the fact that it belongs to another, is what eventually leads to a disregard for other life and human life in general. Would research scientists, in the quest for answers, eventually take to conducting research on beggars, those who sleep rough, or criminals? Would they experiment on orphans or unwanted babies?

The second, when it comes to genetics, is whether genetic experimentation furthers good or promotes misuse. The answer, I suppose, is that the knowledge empowers, but one cannot govern its control. The knowledge that genetic mutation can be edited is good news, perhaps, because it means we can genetically alter, perhaps, disabilities or life-threatening diseases from the onset by removing them. But this, on the other hand, may promote the rise of designer babies, where mothers genetically select features such as blue eyes for their unborn child to enhance their features from birth, and this would promote misuse in the medical community.

Would the use of what is probably best termed genetic surgery be more prominent in the future? One can only suppose so. Once procedures have become more widespread it is certain to conclude that more of such surgeons will become available, to cater for the rich and famous. It may be possible to delay the aging process by genetic surgery, perhaps by removing the gene that causes skin to age, instead of using botox and other external surgical procedures.

Would such genetic surgery ever be available on the NHS? For example, if the cancer gene were identified and could be genetically snipped off, would patients request this instead of medical tablets and other external surgical processes? One way of looking at it is that the NHS is so cash-strapped that under QALY rules, where the cost of a procedure is weighed against the number of quality life years it adds, the cost of genetic surgery would only be limited to more serious illnesses, and certainly not for those down the rung. But perhaps for younger individuals suffering from serious illnesses, such as depression, the cost of a surgical procedure may far outweigh a lifetime’s cost of medication of anti-depressant, anti-psychotics or antibiotics. If you could pinpoint a gene that causes a specific pain response, you might alter it to the point you may not need aspirin, too much of which causes bleeds. And if you could genetically locate what causes dementia in another person, would you not be considered unethical if you let the gene remain, thereby denying others the chance to live a quality life in their latter years?

Genetic editing may be a new technique for the moment but if there is sufficient investment into infrastructure and the corpus of genetic surgery information widens, don’t be surprised if we start seeing more of that in the next century. The cost of genetic editing may outweigh the cost of lifelong medication and side effects, and may prove to be not just more sustainable for the environment but more agreeable to the limited NHS budget.

Most of us won’t be around by then, of course. That is unless we’ve managed to remove the sickness and death genes.

Drugs and Side Effects

All drugs come with side effects, whether they be common off-the-counter medicines or ones that require specialist prescription. Most of these effects can be minor, and some can just be an inconvenience – like having to go to the toilet more often than usual. But a few are serious, and some can just have unforeseen effects that address other ailments.

The most common set of side effects for drugs taken internally involves the gastrointestinal system. Because all prescription drugs invariably end up broken down in the stomach, nearly any drug can cause nausea or an upset stomach. The chances of these happening are quite rare, though for the handful of users this happens too the results can be quite upsetting. For drugs used externally, skin irritation is a common complaint. Which leads me to wonder – if you are merely replacing one symptom with another, is medicine merely an elimination of an ill-effect by replacement through increasingly minor symptoms, until they are bearable?

Side effects fall into several categories. The most common allergic reactions can happen with any drug and can range from itching and rash, which cause flaring on the skin and trigger even more itching and rash. They can be serious all the way up to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

So if drugs have side effects, why not just get rid of these effects in the course of construction? Surely the likes of Glaxo Smith Kline, with their huge companies and research budget, can afford to genetically alter the drugs and lower the side effects? Some drugs can’t help but trigger side effects because of their chemical structure. One example is the common allergy drug diphenhydramine (more commonly known by the brand name Benadryl). It eases allergy symptoms but in the course of doing so, it also suppresses the activity of the body chemical acetylcholine. The side effect it causes is drowsiness and a host of other side effects, including dry mouth. It seems like to minimise allergies, it makes you fall asleep. Surely any fool could do that? Want to stop scratching? Go to bed!

Some drugs typically have barely noticeable side effects when dosed properly. The side effects can be minimal externally but internally they can be quite serious. For example, Warfarin (also known as Coumadin or marketed as Jantoven), is used to prevent blood clots, and while it is usually well tolerated, it can cause serious internal bleeding. I suppose it is like cancer, or heavy consumption of alcohol.

And while side effects may exist within the drug itself, further complications may also occur when certain drugs are mixed with certain other things. If you are mixing different types of drugs together, the combined chemical properties might cause complications. I suppose this is why my mother used to say never take Neurofen and Paracetamol within hours of each other. These might also be considered drug interactions. Drinking alcohol with narcotic painkillers has also caused an alarming increase in accidental overdose deaths. What??? Again, part of me wonders whether it isthe interactions of these chemicals that induced these, or whether it was because drinkers thought they had taken drugs to counter the effects like headaches, and then proceeded to consume more than they would normally have. Drinking grapefruit juice can affect the blood levels of several drugs, including some blood pressure and cholesterol medicines. Citrus fruits tend not to mix well with other foods, although vodka and orange seem a common mix?

Information about drugs legally has to be made available on the label of over-the-counter drug products and on package inserts or printed materials included with the packaging. Usually on the outer box you will find the concise version of all the drug does, and the inserts include the longer version. Because this could be potentially be a long list of possible bad effects, and written in a technical style, it is very helpful to also talk to pharmacists or doctors if you have any queries regarding a drug’s side effects.

Drugs are sometimes prescribed to young children – the more common examples are for hyperactivity, although depression prescriptions are becoming increasingly common, even for children under the age of ten. In the case of hyperactivity, for example, we should always be mindful of simply prescribing medication because it may be that the behaviour is a response to the demands of the task. In the case of depression, it may be that the individual is overwhelmed by demands, and coping strategies, rather than medication, may provide better help. Drugs should be carefully considered because one of the long term side effects is addiction and resistance to medication.

In America, before a drug is released on the market it must be approved by the FDA. Pharmaceutical companies typically submitted New Drug Applications (NDAs) which contain the pre-requisite clinical evidence demonstrating that the drug has the therapeutic effect it is supposed to have. The NDA must also contain proof that the drug is safe for human use. Unfortunately this proof comes from testing of the drug, first in animals and then in humans. Is it fair that rabbits and rats should suffer for the human race, in cages, doused with experimental acids to see if they develop irritations or severe symptoms? I guess you have to decide for yourself where you stand on that.

Homeopathic remedies may still be a long way away before they can be relied wholly on as a cure, but the day where herbal or plant-based remedies replace animal-treated alternatives is one we can look forward to. Once the basic questions of safety are settled, the FDA will approve the drug if it deems that the benefits outweigh its risks.

Sometimes not everything is known about a drug’s side effects until after it enters the marketplace and more people start using it. The pool of human testers is fairly small, so until a large data sample of users is obtained the side effects are not wholly known. MedWatch, the FDA’s post-marketing surveillance program seeks voluntary input, mainly from health care professionals, on adverse effects they may be seeing in ”the real world”. Sometimes these reports are numerous and serious enough for the FDA to take regulatory action, either through the addition of warnings to a drug’s label. One example of that involves the psoriasis drug Raptiva. The FDA required that the drug carry the agency’s strongest warning, known as a black box warning, after reports of brain infections and meningitis in patients taking the drug were received. The side effects were deemed so dangerous that the drug was later withdrawn from the market. Did the testers not recognise this when the lab mice died?

In soliciting feedback, the FDA also wants input from consumers using the various prescription drugs. All prescription drugs must be labelled with a toll-free number maintained by the agency for the purpose of reporting side effects with drugs. The FDA labels these “adverse events.” Severe side-effects can be reported through calling MedWatch at 1-800-FDA-1088 or through the FDA web site: www.­fda.­gov/­Safety/­MedWatch/­HowToReport/­default.­htm.

As we have seen earlier, the post-marketing information coming in to the FDA is so disturbing that it results in a drug coming off the market. Another case can be seen with the drug Baycol, which lowers cholesterol, after it was strongly linked to a potentially fatal breakdown of muscle tissue. While it had been initially approved in 1997, it was voluntarily withdrawn just four years later when evidence of its side effects was published. The anti-inflammatory drug Duract spent just one year on the market. It had been approved as a product strictly for short-term use, but the FDA found serious liver problems with people taking the drug for longer than what was recommended. Which begs the question: “Who is responsible for regulating patients’ consumption of medicines?” While they are safety guards in place, such as some drugs available only on prescription, what is to stop patients obtaining multiple prescriptions?

That aside, drug companies are also required to report adverse events to the FDA, and failure to do so can lead to prosecution. In 1985, two drug companies were fined and sentenced to community service for not reporting adverse events involving the blood pressure drug Selacryn and arthritis drug Oraflex. Both products were pulled from the market.

In the UK, licenses can only be granted by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The stages through which potential medicines are first thoroughly researched start first with the use of tissue culture, followed by computer analysis techniques and finally animal testing.

Likewise, if strict standards of safety and effectiveness are met, clinical trials involving humans can then be used. The license for wider use is approved only if a medicine passes all the phases of clinical trials.

The whole process from discovery to licensing can take a long time, around 10 to 15 years, which means pharmaceutical labs work under a cloak of secrecy and also explains why they may not be willing to withdraw a drug for its side effects if they have invested that much time and money in it.

Not every side effect is a bad one. Some are downright welcome. Take finasteride. Introduced in 1992 to treat noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland, it was found to regrow hair (and is marketed for that purpose under the name Propecia). Patient: “Doctor, how’s my prostrate?” Doctor: “Under control, but a bit hairy.”

Today, millions of men use a low dose of finasteride to treat male pattern baldness. Minoxidil, originally marketed as an oral tablet for high blood pressure, was found to grow hair in those using it. Today, as a topical lotion or foam, it is a popular over-the-counter remedy for baldness. But can you imagine the doctor going “Your blood pressure is normal, Chewbacca”?