HCWH's co-founder Gary Cohen is a recipient of the prestigious Skoll Award. This video, chronicling the evolution of HCWH's work, premiered at the 2009 Skoll World Forum. enlarge video
The Prospects of Green Pharmacy
What is "Green Chemistry"?
Green chemistry is a broad concept, encompassing the full range of ways in which the development of a chemical product (pharmaceutical or otherwise) can adversely affect the environment - from raw material extraction and processing, through manufacturing chemistry, to end-of-life breakdown in the environment.
Each stage should use minimal resources and energy, create minimum waste, and produce minimal harmful by-products. The end goal of green pharmacy is one-step disposal, where drugs are fully metabolised in the body and break down immediately in the environment to harmless compounds.
In reality, this objective is a long way off. Obstacles include introducing life-cycle thinking (this is only very rarely taught) to chemistry and inadequate incentives to implement green innovations into drug production.
We certainly need greener, less energy-intensive manufacturing processes. The NHS Sustainable Development Unit estimates that a full 22% of its carbon footprint comes from procurement of pharmaceuticals (equal to the carbon footprint of its energy consumption).
See pages 30-31 of the report Saving Carbon, Improving Health.
That means the NHS could shut down its entire operations except for buying drugs, and still not meet its target of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions!
A real problem which faces the uptake in green chemistry is the overall decline in innovation in the pharmaceutical industry: the level of development of new drugs has fallen 40% in the last 10 years, as companies are less willing to invest in clinical studies.
Pharmaceutical companies are calling for more incentives to invest in green chemistry. Although it may turn out to be necessary to consider e.g. proposals to extend patent life for green drugs, it is very important to do so in a way which cannot be exploited by the drug industry. Part of this will have to be careful consideration of what counts as a genuinely "green" innovation.
Equally, care has to be taken with regulation. Forcing green innovation may be counter-productive. Drugs are already being lost due to industry being too risk-averse; adding to the burden of risk by forcing drugs to be green on top of other criteria could prevent rather than encourage the development of new drugs.
13 Steps Towards Green Chemistry
A 13-point strategy towards green chemistry has been outlined by the KNAPPE project. The strategy covers two aspects: what defines a "green" product, and what strategic goals key stakeholders should be looking to implement.
Three key challenges to address include:
- Renewable sources for raw materials of drugs: Many compounds are made from fossil fuels. Biological substitutes could reduce the dependence of the pharmaceutical industry on oil.
- Energy consumed during manufacture: Compounds are complex and manufacturing processes energy-intensive. Increased use of catalysis could reduce required energy input.
- Rapid breakdown: Drugs need to be fully metabolised to harmless compounds within the body or rapidly break down in waterways, to prevent them accumulating in the environment.