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Accidental discovery.

Byline: KATE HODAL

T just didn't make sense.

IThe samples sent to the lab by Chris McGuigan, professor of medicinal chemistry at Cardiff University, should have come back inactive and stable, and yet here they were attacking the virus.

Researching anti-HIV drugs, Prof McGuigan inadvertently stumbled across a new family of compounds that attacked the VZV virus - an infectious agent directly responsible for shingles.

Prof McGuigan's discovery could eventually lead to a cure for a health problem that affects over two million people in developed countries every year.

But his story isn't unique. Throughout history happy accidents have allowed scientists to make discoveries. From penicillin to x-ray, pacemakers to Viagra, some of the world's greatest advances in medicine have been the result of such serendipity - be it a mistake made in a test tube or the misreading of a note left in a lab.

It may not be credited as such in official journals, but serendipity plays such an integral role in medicine even today that some scientists swear they couldn't do their job without it.

Such serendipitous stumbles are now being commemorated in the government's Science: So What? So Everything campaign, aimed at reminding us of all the lucky discoveries we take for granted.

Some pounds 80billion is spent worldwide each year developing new medicines, according to the Pharmaceutical Industry Association of America, yet the money-to-drug breakthrough rate is extremely low. Despite massive advances in technology, science and genomics, only 20 new medicines emerge every year - the average taking around 17 years to go from test tube to pharmacy.

To increase such appalling odds, scientists tend to rely on a process called rational design, which uses modern chemistry and molecular graphics to identify, and then impede, particular enzymes or targets in a virus or disease.

"Rational design essentially gives us a better chance of success, rather than doing things randomly," explains McGuigan, having used such a method to treat diseases such as hepatitis B and C, herpes, cancer and osteoarthritis.

Dr Alison Campbell, of Kings College, London, says: "That's just the nature of science: you don't know quite where it's going but then, bam, here's a great breakthrough."

The college was involved in the serendipitous discovery of sucralose - otherwise known as Splenda - in 1976. The noncalorific natural sweetener was discovered after the simple misreading of an instruction, which called for lab staff to test a sugar compound.

"One assistant misread 'test' for 'taste' and found it was incredibly sweet," says Dr Campbell. "After looking at the derivatives of sugar, they found the compound was much stronger than traditional sugar, but just as effective and safe."

McGuigan's shingles drug Inhibitex, which is 10,000 times stronger than the current treatment, has finally entered clinical trials. It might not have been the cure for HIV he was initially researching, but it's a scientific breakthrough that McGuigan won't soon forget. "If I can go down as being the inventor of a drug that improves the life of 2 million people a year, I will be the happiest man on Earth.". To find out more about the Science: So What? So Everything campaign, visit direct.gov.uk/ sciencesowhat

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Medicines take around 17 years to go from test tube to pharmacy
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 5, 2009
Words:539
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