My heart sank as my phone lit up with a call from a familiar number. It was my OBGYN informing me that I had failed my glucose tolerance test, indicating that I had developed gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. She told me that while we would try to manage the condition with diet and exercise, we would need to incorporate insulin if my blood sugar levels were too high. My mind raced as I frantically Googled how much insulin costs in Canada, where I recently moved.
A 2021 report from the World Health Organization “highlights the alarming state of global access to insulin and diabetes care, and finds that high prices, low availability of human insulin, few producers dominating the insulin market, and weak health systems are the main barriers to universal access." Insulin serves as a striking case study for how financial and logistical obstacles can stand in the way of access to life-saving drugs. The scientists developing these therapeutics may not be able to control drug pricing, revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry, or overhaul the healthcare system, but there are still measures they can take to improve access to treatment.
One of these is to strive to stabilize drugs in a wider range of environmental conditions. For example, researchers have designed thin films, trehalose polymers, and silk cocoons that keep biologics stable at elevated temperatures. They hope that these protective substances will allow fragile protein drugs and vaccines to be transported and stored without cold chain infrastructure, broadening distribution to remote areas.
Other researchers devise strategies to make drugs easier to administer. These include microneedle patches that can be applied directly to the skin and gastrointestinal autoinjector capsules that can be swallowed to deliver vaccines without a traditional injection. By offering the potential to self-administer vaccines, these devices can expand access to home settings in regions with a shortage of clinics or trained healthcare professionals.
Researchers are also developing diagnostic tools that rely on ubiquitous, affordable technology. For example, scientists are working on a tuberculosis-detecting fluorescent probe that is compatible with the microscopes available in the low-income countries where the disease is most prevalent. Others created a smartphone application that quantifies yellow pigment in photos of newborns’ eyes to screen for jaundice, providing an alternative to the expensive instrument for low-resource communities.
It's encouraging to learn about these advances in formulation, administration, and low-cost technology while writing for and reading Drug Discovery News. I hope that researchers continue to implement such approaches to increase access to their discoveries at every stage of the drug development pipeline. Scientists can create the safest and most effective therapeutics, but the impact will only extend as far as the people the drugs reach.
1. World Health Organization. New WHO reports maps barriers to insulin availability and suggests actions to promote universal access (2021).