Millions of fearful patients could be saved the pain of vaccinations, thanks to revolutionary pain-free needles that are being developed by students and researchers at the Welsh School of Pharmacy in Cardiff, alongside clinicians in Wales and engineers in Ireland. The work is just one example of how pharmacy students are increasingly being given the space to influence industry and affect real change in the world.
"For many years, the pharmacy degree was a three-year course. It's now been extended to four years, so that every student has time to do a major research project in their final year," says Damian Day, head of accreditation at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. "Since there is a requirement that all schools of pharmacy are research active, there are some unique and exciting examples of work going on. Students can also do industry placements, where they may get involved in other innovative projects."
Unfortunately, this isn't always recognised by people considering pharmacy as a career option, he says. "I don't think people realise that a lot of pharmacy students are at the leading edge of research and that there are plenty of opportunities for them to pursue it as a career. I think the view out there is of most pharmacists existing in shops and hospitals, which is outdated."
Dr James Birchall, who is heading up the micro-needle project at the Welsh School of Pharmacy, says that the team of students and researchers have so far demonstrated that the needles work and that DNA can be delivered with them. "We are now working on how to get the vaccines into the skin," he says.
DNA vaccines have several advantages over standard vaccines, he says. "They are likely to be cheaper and easier to make. The micro-needle might also be developed as a patch for self-application, avoiding the need for a clinician."
While most of the work of students is done in the lab, there are other pioneering aspects to it too. "We have been getting together groups of doctors, nurses and members of the general public to ask them what would make them confident about using the new technology. Scientists often don't ask questions about how their technologies might actually work in the outside world, but we felt it was important to feed that information back into the research."
Dr Dai John, head of clinical and professional pharmacy for the MPharm degree at the Welsh School of Pharmacy, says that since 2000, they have had 50 publications and conference presentations that have resulted from undergraduate work. "Among the other things that are being researched are new anti-cancer drugs and drugs for treating tropical diseases," he says. "Other students have been working with sports people, such as rugby union players, about the drugs they should and shouldn't take. So there's a real mixture of ways they are making a difference."
He believes that because half of the final year at Cardiff University is based on a research project, pharmacy graduates leave with a much greater skillset. The feedback from students has been positive, he says. "We did a survey and found that of 61 Cardiff University pharmacy graduates, only one disagreed that if they had the choice again, they'd choose to study pharmacy."
Even if students don't end up producing a new drug or inventing a new piece of technology that reaches the market that year, they are helping to move science forward. Birchall says: "In fact, even if their project doesn't work out, they are paving the way for another student to come along and try something different."
Professor Terry Healey, head of the School of Pharmacy at Robert Gordons University, believes one of the greatest benefits of studying pharmacy today is the growing link between schools of pharmacy and industry. "Sometimes novel drugs like Atracurium (a neuromuscular blocking drug) are developed wholly within the university and sometimes the university is commissioned to test a drug developed elsewhere," he says.
Some academics even set up their own spin-off companies, he adds. "It's in everyone's interests. New drugs are developed and students get to work with cutting edge researchers."
At the School of Pharmacy at the University of London, pharmacy students who take the option of going on to study at PhD level are making a massive impact on society, as Professor Tony Moffatt explains: "Two of my PhD students have been working in process analytical technology and the outcome of this research is now being used by the likes of AstraZeneca and Pfizer. These companies benefit directly from the work we've done and we get to work closely with them. So you can see how we are assisting industry in the UK to remain as global leaders."
You may also get the chance to get involved in research overseas, says Professor Chris McGuigan, professor of medicinal chemistry and director of research at the Welsh School of Pharmacy. "For a number of years I've offered my students the option of working in places such as France. They have the opportunity to go out for a month, where they have a supervisor and get to work in the labs full-time. Those who do it thoroughly enjoy it."
Other overseas organisations he works with include Roche in California and GlaxoSmithKline in North Carolina.
According to Professor McGuigan, today's pharmacy students are guaranteed a constructive experience within their research. "There is a driver to give students a project that you are confident will work, so you usually get undergraduates working alongside all levels of researchers."
Sion Coulman: Painless vaccinations could soon be a reality
Sion Coulman became involved in research at the Welsh School of Pharmacy in Cardiff during his undergraduate degree and again during his PhD. He is now a full-time member of academic staff.
I first got involved in research in a summer placement in my second year, which I came back to in my fourth year, when all students do a research project. The work was around technology that can be used for pharmaceutical analysis, and I understand that work is still being developed.
I enjoyed the research so much that, having gone on to do my pre-registration year in community pharmacy, I decided to come back to the school to do a PhD. That's when I started work on the development of micro- needles, which is a really new, innovative technology consisting of tiny needles that penetrate the outer skin barrier. They are both painless and bloodless.
The idea of a painless vaccination is obviously appealing to people, but that's not its only advantage. The fact that it is bloodless means it could also be of use for childhood vaccines in the Third World.
It's possible that we could see the needles being used as close as five years away, so it's very exciting.
When I started my undergraduate degree, I imagined myself as a pharmacist in a hospital or in a community environment. I didn't imagine going into science, because I didn't realise the extent of the opportunities out there.