When remedies go wrong - Researchers come to grips with how helpful drugs can harm

 

Montreal May 26, 2011 — A mother taking well known pain relievers ends up giving her infant a fatal morphine overdose through her breast milk. A toddler taking cough syrup after getting his tonsils out develops a fever and stops breathing. Drugs intended to comfort children or even save their lives can sometimes kill them instead, leaving parents as well as prescribing physicians frustrated and puzzled. Researchers are now unraveling the subtle genetic roots of these tragedies, with the hope of identifying those patients who are most at risk before they receive any medication.

Writing in Today’s Parent magazine, Mark Witten outlines the challenge of trying to understand what happens in the body when a particular gene processes safe and approved medicines in unexpected ways. His work is being honoured with this year’s Sanofi Pasteur Medal For Excellence In Health Research Journalism. “Heal or Harm? The Truth About Prescription Drugs,” which appeared in the publication’s October 2010 issue, explains how modest levels of codeine in some products can be quickly metabolized as morphine in some individuals.

“The author captured our attention with a seemingly isolated story and quickly brought out statistics of the widespread nature of the issue,” stated one of the judges for the medal competition. “This showed the clear impact of biomedical research — identifying a problem, developing a research program and ultimately simple tests.”

Another judge put the point even more bluntly: “Readers of this story were also given valuable health research and consumer information — and questions they should be asking physicians and nurses before giving their children medications.”

Nor is codeine the only medication they should ask about. According to Witten’s account, each year more than 2,500 Canadian children die — and many others are left hurt or disabled — after reacting to ibuprofen, antibiotics, corticosteroids, and even chemo-therapeutic drugs intended to keep cancer at bay.

“This is a narrative that reveals what we now know to be entirely preventable tragedies,” says CHR president, Patricia Guyda. “So often we read about genetic investigations of one sort or another, and we rightly wonder what will come of them. Witten’s reporting tells us just that, making an invaluable contribution to our appreciation of how research benefits Canadians.”

CHR launched the Sanofi Pasteur Medal in 1995, and administers the selection process. Sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur Ltd., Canada's premier vaccine company, the inaugural medal recipient was Globe and Mail science reporter Stephen Strauss for his longstanding contribution to promoting public awareness of science. Other recent awardees include Michael Smith from University Affairs and Peggy Curran from the Montreal Gazette.

“As a company that is built on nearly a century of science, Sanofi Pasteur is pleased to be associated with this prestigious award that recognizes excellence in science journalism,” says Nancy Simpson, Director, Communications at Sanofi Pasteur Canada.

She will present the award to Mr. Witten on June 11 during the Canadian Science Writers’ Association annual general meeting in Calgary, Alberta, where Mr. Witten will receive a commemorative medal and a $2,500 bursary.

Canadians for Health Research (CHR) is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting the stability and quality of Canadian health research. It fosters communication between health researchers, the government and the Canadian public, and publishes a quarterly magazine entitled Future Health. For more information, or to become a member, please visit the CHR website at http://www.chrcrm.org.

Sanofi Pasteur, a leading global pharmaceutical company, discovers, develops and distributes therapeutic solutions to improve the lives of everyone. It is listed in Paris (EURONEXT: SAN) and in New York (NYSE: SNY).

Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi-Aventis Group, provided more than a 1.6 billion doses of vaccine each year, making it possible to immunize more than 500 million people across the globe. A world leader in the vaccine industry, Sanofi Pasteur offers the broadest range of vaccines protecting against 20 bacterial and viral diseases. The company's heritage, to create vaccines that protect life, dates back more than a century. Sanofi Pasteur is the largest
company entirely dedicated to vaccines. Every day, the company invests more than $1 million in research and development. For more information, please visit: www.sanofipasteur.com

For more information, please contact:

Patricia Guyda
CHR Director,
Montreal, QC

514-398-7478
pguyda@chrcrm.org

Nancy Simpson
Communications
Sanofi Pasteur Limited
Toronto, Ontario
416-667-2955
nancy.simpson@sanofipasteur.com

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