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Dr Francesco Tamagnini

A University of Reading researcher has been honoured with a reception in his home country of San Marino.

On the 13th of August 2018, the Most Excellent Regent Captains of the Republic of San Marino received in a private audience five San Marino citizens working abroad and excelling in their own respective fields.

Dr Francesco Tamagnini, Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Reading School of Pharmacy, was one of the five, and had the chance to talk about his research into Alzheimer’s Disease and how his career path took him from San Marino to Reading.

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We throw away or destroy millions of unused medicines each year, at an estimated cost of £300m to the NHS. But could they be safely re-used? Reading’s Dr Parastou Donyai has gathered the views of patients and says it’s time for a public debate.

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If it had not been for the discoveries of Arvid Carlsson we would have no drugs for Parkinson’s disease. In a recent post for The Conversation, Reading neuroscientist Dr Patrick Lewis explores the legacy of the scientist who discovered a critical molecule that brain cells use to communicate.

Arvid Carlsson, the Swedish neuroscientist and Nobel laureate, died on June 29, 2018 at the age of 95. He had devoted his life to understanding how the brain works and was awarded the Nobel for his research into dopamine – an important chemical found in the brain.

So what is dopamine, and why did finding out about it merit the Nobel Prize?

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When Billy Caldwell’s medicinal cannabis oil was recently seized at Heathrow Airport, the drug was put back in the spotlight. Reading’s Professor Gary Stephens investigates the effects of cannabis-derived compounds on the brain. Here he gives update on the research, why it’s needed and how long it will be before new drugs will reach patients in a new post for The Conversation.

Gary Stephens with University of Reading colleagues Dr Ben Whalley and Dr Claire Williams, pictured at a Cannabis-growing site in 2011.

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It’s 65 years since Watson and Crick published their world-changing paper on the structure of DNA – a discovery they and Rosalind Franklin made using a technique called X-ray diffraction. To mark the anniversary we spoke to Dr James Hall, who uses the same technique today to study molecules which light up when they detect damaged DNA. This could pave the way for future diagnostic tests for diseases such as cancer.

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50 million people around the world are living with dementia and that figure is set to reach 152 million by 2050. Ahead of tonight’s public lecture, neuroscientist Dr Mark Dallas tells us how understanding ‘brain glue’ could hold the secret to detecting dementia decades before the first symptoms appear.

Our brains are made up of 170 billion cells – that’s 24 times the population of planet Earth. We now know that there is roughly a 50:50 split of nerve cells to other cells. These other cells are collectively termed glia after the Greek word for glue, because they were once thought of as the glue that helped to hold the nerve cells together.

Dr Mark Dallas will explain the research at his ‘Brain Glue’ public lecture on Wednesday night (28 Feb)

Scientists now know that these cells are in fact key players in brain function, maintaining a healthy environment for the nerves cells to communicate with each other.

Of interest to dementia scientists is that fact that these cells may be first responders to signs of damage. Why does this matter? It matters because it is about this point in time that scientists believe an individual living with Alzheimer’s disease today would start experiencing subtle, almost undetectable changes in their brains.

Therefore, if we know more about these cells and what they do, we may be able to detect dementia some 20 years before current diagnosis.

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James Parkinson, Theresa May and me

By Dr Patrick Lewis, Associate Professor of Pharmacy

Theresa May speaking at a reception held at 10 Downing Street.

200 years ago the disorder that we now know as Parkinson’s disease was first described by James Parkinson, a surgeon and apothecary who lived in Hoxton, on the edge of the City of London.

On Monday I was fortunate to be invited to a reception at Downing Street hosted by the Prime Minister and Parkinson’s UK to mark this occasion. This brought together people with Parkinson’s, researchers and political leaders to highlight the challenges that are still faced by individuals living with Parkinson’s, their families, friends and carers despite the two centuries of research into this disorder.

Most importantly, there is still no disease modifying therapy – that is, a drug or intervention that either slows down or stops the progress of the brain cell loss that causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

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By Dr Mark Dallas, Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, University of ReadingMark Dallas

Our hope as dementia scientists is that these cells could unlock a new avenue of treatments that alters the course of Alzheimer’s disease

The human brain is a complex structure made up of different types of cells. You have probably heard scientists talk about nerve cells or brain cells. These are the cells that are lost in Alzheimer’s disease.

However, there are a similar number of other cell types within the brain, called glial cells. ‘Glial’ comes from the Greek word for glue, as these cells were originally believed to hold the nerve cells together. It is now clear that these cells are highly specialised and vital for brain function.

So what are these cells, and how could they help us find treatments for Alzheimer’s?

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Dr Julie Hawkins from the School of Biological Sciences discusses recent research which aims to revitalise the hunt for new plant-based medicines.

The earliest medicines were derived from plants, and the first doctors were trained in botany. Today, many societies rely directly on plants and plant knowledge for the health of their people, and a large proportion of pharmaceutical medicines are derived from plants. These pharmaceuticals are often used in ways which reflect traditional use of the species from which they have been derived.

Despite the importance of plants to health, however, there is some controversy as to whether new drugs could be derived from them. Recent developments in drug discovery have made use of robotic screening of compound libraries, whist bioprospecting based on traditional knowledge of plant use has fallen out of favour. Some have argued that useful pharmaceuticals are unlikely to be discovered amongst the ‘riches of the rainforests’. There are issues surrounding recognising the intellectual property of the people discovering and using these plants, which is seen as politically complex, and this discourages investment. In addition, collecting traditionally used plants for screening is time consuming and relies on expertise in botany and ethnobotany. Furthermore, some have argued that plant use may not be indicative of bioactivity, so screening plants used by traditional healers may not yield valuable insights.

Research I have been involved in has recently looked at a novel way of evaluating plants used by traditional healers to address this. We considered the phylogenies, or ‘family trees’ of the plants found in three global biodiversity hotspots. By using DNA sequences to work out how plants in these regions were related, we were able to see whether plants usedby traditonal healers in different regions were closely related to each other. The geographic regions we selected for the study were ones unlikely to have exchanged knowledge about traditional plants – Nepal, New Zealand and South Africa. We found that in these regions the same closely-related plants were used by traditional healers, and interestingly were used to treat the same conditions. 

The fact that evolutionarily related plants are used in different regions, even though the same species are not present, strongly suggests an independent discovery of plants which share the same or similar health properties.  This new finding could revitalise the search for valuable plant medicines. Targeted screening of plants with a high potential for having health benefits would reduce the time investment in collecting species, and also make it easier to negotiate fair and equitable distribution of benefits with the originators of the knowledge.

Dr Julie Hawkins works in the School of Biological Sciences and is interested in the application of molecular marker data to determine identity, parentage and provenance of economically important plant species. This research has recently been published in PNAS: Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, Vincent Savolainen, Elizabeth M. Williamson, Félix Forest, Steven J. Wagstaff, Sushim R. Baral, Mark F. Watson, Colin A. Pendry & Julie A. Hawkins. ‘Phylogenies reveal predictive power of traditional medicine in bioprospecting’ PNAS (2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1202242109.

 

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