We currently live in an era of everchanging regulations and permissible daily activities due to the measures taken to curb the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, I shared a vlog detailing what my typical day as a PhD student looks like. That was quite early in the year, and it was less busy at that time. At the moment, I am busier than I was back then, and have decided to share some of my current daily activities in another vlog post, see video below:
The year has gotten quite busy, and my typical day consists of assisting/supervising students and lots of lab work as shown in the vlog above. In addition to the activities shown in the vlog, I sometimes assist with COVID-19 vaccinations at the University of Pretoria’s vaccination site. The University of Pretoria was the first academic institution in South Africa to set up a COVID-19 vaccination site. Staff members from the University and the general public can access the vaccination site. Students from our Faculty of Health Sciences volunteer to assist with administrative procedures during vaccinations, and I also volunteered to assist, especially when students are not available.
A photo of me working at the University of Pretoria’s COVID-19 vaccination site
At the vaccination site, I either conduct administrative work or help out at the site pharmacy, where we prepare the vaccines for injection. The vaccination site opens from Tuesday to Thursday, and I unfortunately filmed the vlog on a Friday, therefore, I did not get a chance to show the activities I conduct at the vaccination site. As a PhD student, we normally do not get to interact with the public, and so assisting at the vaccination site has honestly been a worthwhile experience, as we interact with individuals from different backgrounds. I hope that during the festive holidays, I will spend more time at the vaccination site, and share another vlog that details my activities at the site. I hope this current vlog does provide you with a glimpse into the life of a typical PhD student.
I was on a phone call the other day and my aunt jokingly asked me the question – “why don’t you and your colleagues there in pharmacology find the cure to this COVID-19 pandemic?” Well, I giggled a little, but her question was justified to an extent. The field of pharmacology is involved in the process of developing new drugs. Pharmacology is a branch of medicine that focuses on studying the uses, effects, and mechanisms of action of drugs. The field focuses on observing the relationship between complex biological systems and chemical compounds that affect them. Often confused with pharmacy, a field that focuses on the preparation and dispensing of medication, pharmacology focusses on studying abnormalities that occur in various diseases and investigating drugs that can potentially overcome such aberrations.
The development of drugs is a costly and time-consuming process. It takes approximately 12-15 years of research and can cost as much as R40 billion Rand for a single drug to reach the point where it is available on the market (shown in the figure below). In pharmacology, there are three broad branches of research involved in the research and development of drugs: basic research, clinical research and regulatory pharmacology.
Figure 1: Overview of the drug development process.
In basic research, a large number of chemical compounds are tested in the lab to elucidate their potential efficacy in targeting some aspects associated with the disease in question. Such experiments involve testing compounds on cells isolated from humans and grown under sterile conditions (cell culture). In cell culture, it is very important that the experiments are done in a way that provides reliable clues of results to be obtained when human or animal experiments done. My PhD is focused on developing advanced cell culture models that allow for better predictions of such results. Below is a 3-minute video explaining how we exactly intend to do that.
When satisfactory results are obtained from cell cultures, the efficacy of drugs is then investigated on animal models (rats, mice, pigs, horses, fish, and many others). All experiments are conducted in accordance with strict ethical guidelines, and when efficacy and lack of toxicity is inferred from these experiments, clinical studies are then conducted.
Clinical research involves the investigation of the efficacy and safety of drugs in human beings. In these investigations, people voluntarily enrol in clinical trials, which consist of various phases. Although many drugs show remarkable potential in basic research, many drugs are eliminated in clinical trials due to harmful effects and/or lack of efficacy. This difference in the results obtained in basic research and clinical studies can be attributed to the obvious difference between animals and human beings.
When clinical data has been completed, it is compiled and sent to regulatory bodies for thorough review and approval before a drug is available on the market. Various regulatory authorities are responsible for ensuring that all guidelines were followed when developing drugs. Such regulations are carried out by regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration in America and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority here in South Africa. After it has been proven that all regulatory requirements are met, the drug is finally approved to be available in the market, and you can finally see it in your local pharmacy or hospital.
You may be wondering…. if it takes so long to develop a single drug, how did we manage to have the COVID-19 vaccine in such a short space of time. Well, in respect to basic pharmacological research, similar viruses to the one that caused the pandemic have been studied for a long time, hence it was relatively easy to figure out a vaccine approach to the new coronavirus. Secondly, in some diseases, it takes a long time to recruit participants into a clinical trial. With COVID-19 clinical studies, it was quick to recruit patients, due to the existence of a pandemic, which mean a large number of people were readily available to participate in the studies. Additionally, funds were made available by governments and various to assist in conducting these trials. Lastly, regulatory approval application for COVID-19 based studies had to be prioritized, and this shortened the usually long times as well. Thankfully, we finally have many vaccines against this devastating pandemic.
So, going back to my aunt’s question, it is a big challenge for myself as a PhD student to create a vaccine that can be readily taken by people, given the rigorous process and costs that go into drug development. However, as different researchers across the world, we individually make our contributions to the field of drug development, and these concerted contributions eventually culminate in real-life health solutions.