Pharmacy professionals worried about the environment

Drug traces that make their way into our waterways from waste are a concern for professionals of environmental protection and the pharmaceutical industry alike. Pharmaceutical research could curtail these emissions at the beginning of the drug production chain.

Increased use of medicinal products means that increasing amounts of pharmaceuticals are contaminating our waste water and natural waterways. In developed countries, most of these emissions originate from the proper use of drug treatments, not waste generated by the pharmaceutical industry itself. New methods for treating waste water are constantly being developed, but the focus is now on links higher up the chain, namely, drug discovery, manufacture and use.

The Generation Green group at the Faculty of Pharmacy seeks to reduce drug traces in our waterways through action along the drug’s full life cycle. For example, the group has debated what could be done during the education of pharmaceutical professionals or through customer service at pharmacies. Researchers are studying whether it would be possible to develop drugs that would degrade faster or be less dangerous to the environment without compromising their potency.

“The challenge is that such drugs might be less effective than our current ones. A potent medicinal compound is often fat soluble and stable. These properties usually mean that it degrades slowly,” explains Tiina Sikanen, leader of the Generation Green group, which also participated in the Helsinki Challenge competition.

Completely new solutions needed

Tiina Sikanen points out that the environmental problems caused by drug traces are difficult to solve.

“Making new drugs more environmentally friendly is as arduous and long a process as developing a completely new drug. Of course, new developments in the field could yield new medicinal products or ways of administering them. Nanoformulation, for example, lets us target the drug more accurately so that smaller concentrations of the substance can target a precise location. This way we could potentially replace the structures that are most harmful to the environment with substances that degrade rapidly.”

On the other hand, the ways in which drugs degrade in nature are not yet fully understood. During the development process, researchers may examine the effect of light on drug degradation, for example, but the results may not correspond with the changes caused by different natural environments. Meanwhile, environmental research typically focuses only on the original substance with little regard for its metabolites, or the results of its biological degradation.

“Typically, a drug breaks down into several different forms. Commercial standards exist for studying the therapeutic compounds, but the degradation products may not appear on pharmacy shelves. Our research group has been thinking whether it would be possible to use microchip technology to easily generate standards for environmental research on these metabolites or to predict the degradation of a drug during the very early steps of drug discovery.

Unused drugs can also pose a problem

Tiina Sikanen points out that drug traces originating from administered drugs are not the only problem. The manufacture, collection and disposal of unused drugs waste time, money and natural resources.

The estimated annual value of unused prescription drugs returned to pharmacies ranges from 95 to 125 million euros in Finland alone. The total figure is even higher, since about a third of unused drugs are never returned to pharmacies.

One of the reasons for the large amount of unused drugs is pricing of large package sizes. When selecting a suitable drug, a larger package will often be cheaper per dose than a smaller package. If a drug is unsuitable for a patient, most of the contents of the large package go unused and are ultimately sent for disposal.

“Changes in legislation and pricing policies should take place at the EU level, not the national level. Our research group is participating in national and international cooperation to establish a connection with policy-makers in the European Union,” says Tiina Sikanen.

Environmental considerations included in early studies

Sustainable development is one of the degree objectives of pharmacy. Generation Green seeks to promote environmentally friendly pharmacy at the Faculty one discipline and one professor at a time.

Eeva Teräsalmi had a wonderful idea to invite one professor at a time to our monthly meetings to talk about how we could introduce the environmental angle in, for example, learning materials. We will keep doing this for some time. It would not make sense to introduce separate courses on green pharmacy into the current degree structure. Generation Green wants sustainable practices to be a part of all pharmacy education,” Tiina Sikanen states.