Issue date: 06 July 2001

Drug companies have to ensure that their products reach the highest possible standards of purity. Before a new product can reach the customer it has to be exhaustively tested for tiny traces of impurities. Until now some of the methods used have been very time-consuming, taking up to ten minutes to analyse each sample.

Now these tests can be carried out in a fraction of the time - as little as 30 seconds for each sample - thanks to new techniques being investigated by University of the West of England scientists.

The method used is called high performance liquid chromatography. In this technique, solutions of the drug are passed through columns of exceptionally pure silica, which cause it to separate into its constituent parts and are subsequently identified. David McCalley, from UWE's Centre for Research in Biomedicine, is leading the three-year project which has been funded by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca UK Limited.

"This technique means that any impurities can be identified more easily. It should lead to considerable time-savings for the pharmaceutical companies, and result in a more rapid delivery of drugs to the consumer," he said.

David says that the techniques being developed have other applications such as forensic drug analysis. "The same methods can be used to identify drugs of abuse, and the potentially harmful substances which are often used to cut illegal drugs. Thus any advances we make could one day be of use to the police," he added.

David's particular expertise in this field means that he has also acted as a consultant to the US government's National Institutes of Health on projects relating to the analysis of pharmaceuticals.


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