Around 1 in 20 admissions to hospital are due to adverse drug reactions in the UK and other countries with well-developed health services. There are multiple causes for this surprisingly high rate of adverse reactions to medicines: the patient might not have followed established guidelines, such as avoiding alcohol; the wrong drug or dose might have been prescribed; an interaction between two drugs might have been overlooked; the patient's genetic makeup might cause an anomalous reaction; the patient might be taking contaminated drugs bought from unregulated sources on the internet; an unknown adverse reaction to a new drug might have been missed in the development and safety testing of that drug.
Many of the adverse drug reactions are preventable. We need to make sure medical students and prescribers are aware of how to prescribe safely, know common and high risk drugs well and, importantly, to make sure adverse reactions are recorded on patients' records so that they don't happen again. Now that people are able to obtain prescription drugs on the internet, systems also need to be improved in order to better regulate drugs that are accessed in this way.
Today's national and international regulations on medicine safety have evolved over than a century. In 1906 came a major focus on medicine safety in the USA, with the Food and Drugs Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The UK went on in 1941 with the Pharmacy and Medicines Act to force manufacturers to list active ingredients on drug packaging, and restrict manufacturers from general advertising about medical claims of their products. The thalidomide disaster of the late 1950s and early 1960s brought about further major improvements: previously drug testing was very limited. Now great care is taken in assessing possible risks of medicines during pregnancy.
Many serious adverse drug reactions happen in people with genetic reasons for reduced ability to handle drugs in the body. Drug leaflets now specify if there is any known 'pharmacogenetic’ information on a medicine. The potential seriousness of these differences between people is shown by the example that the Japanese regulatory authorities are unwilling to license drugs for use in their country unless they have been tested on Japanese people.
New pharmacogenetic provide the opportunity to reduce exposure of patients to potentially harmful medicines based on recognizing an increased genetic risk. And new chemical genomics methods allow ways to identify safer and more effective use of current and new medicines.
For further details on these themes, see my interview with Amy McLeod from Warwick's Knowledge Centre.