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Biology - Use of Drugs (AQA Syllabus A)

In GCSE Science students will look at drugs, both recreational and medical. This is the first of two quizzes on the subject and it concentrates on medical drugs and how they are tested in drug trials.

Humans have developed a wide range of drugs to help maintain health. Two of the most commonly used are painkillers and antibiotics but there are many others - antiinflammatory, steroids, anti-cancer and heart drugs to name but a few. Scientists are continually developing new drugs but when new medical drugs are devised, they have to be extensively tested and trialled before being used. It can take several years from developing the drug to using it on patients. They are tested in a series of stages to find out if they are safe and effective. New drugs are extensively tested for toxicity, efficiency and dose.

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How exactly are drugs tested? Well, the first stage takes place in a laboratory where drugs are tested on cells, tissues and live animals. If they pass those tests, clinical trials take place using volunteers. The doses are gradually increased until the best is found. These trials are carried out under controlled conditions.

During the 1950s, a drug was developed as a sedative or sleeping pill. It was called thalidomide. It was subsequently sold to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness. A lot of these women then gave birth to children whose limbs had not developed properly, around half of the children subsequently died. Thalidomide was taken off the market. How did this happen? It was only tested for its efficiency as a sedative and was assumed to be safe. It is now just used to treat certain types of cancer and leprosy. Following this terrible error, drug testing rules were made much stricter.

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  1. What is a placebo?
    A placebo is a control to make the results more accurate. If a volunteer who took a placebo reports that they have recovered or are feeling better, it means that their result can be ignored as they have not taken the drug
  2. Why are drugs tested on cells, tissues and live animals in the laboratory first?
    The drugs are tested using computer models and human cells grown in the laboratory. Many new drugs fail this test because they damage the cells or do not seem to work. Only if they pass this test will testing be taken further
  3. Why was thalidomide sold to pregnant women?
    The 'catch' here would be the answer 'to help them sleep' as that was the original use of this drug
  4. What is a double blind clinical trial?
    This makes the results of clinical testing more accurate
  5. Which of these is one reason why it costs a lot of money to develop new drugs?
    It takes a lot of work by teams of scientists to come up with ideas for new drugs. Then they have to work out how to make the new chemical which isn't easy. This all costs a lot of money and that is before the first trial so if a lot of the substances they develop fail any of the tests, that is a lot of money spent for no result
  6. What were the effects of thalidomide on a foetus?
    Many of the thalidomide children also had abnormalities with their internal organs, which is why such a high proportion died
  7. Why must medical drugs be tested before they are used on patients?
    Testing can also find any side-effects that taking the particular drug might have
  8. What is the importance of thalidomide?
    It was never tested for use on pregnant women. At the time, the medical profession still didn't realise how easily a foetus could be damaged. Women at the time even smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol whilst pregnant
  9. What is the purpose of the first clinical trial?
    If the drug is found to be non-toxic, a second clinical trial can be carried out to find the best dose and to see just how effective it is
  10. Which one of the following is not a medical drug?
    The difficulty with this question is making the choice between heroin and LSD. The chemical name for heroin is diacetylmorphine and it is used in UK hospitals as an extremely powerful pain killer

Author: Kev Woodward

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