News Release

Common medicines should mimic timing of body's natural systems to prevent side-effects

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Exeter

Debilitating side effects associated with prescription medication for some of today's most common conditions could be eradicated if they mimicked the body's natural hormone secretion cycles, a new report has said.

Scientists from Exeter and Bristol have studied how conventional steroid treatments – commonly used to treat a range of conditions from steroid deficiency to inflammatory diseases such as asthma and arthritis – can have serious side effects due to the way in which they are delivered to the body.

The study concluded that many of these side effects could be significantly reduced if the delivery of the medication mimicked the timing of the body's own natural release mechanisms and that pharmaceutical companies should develop novel techniques for achieving this.

The report, which is published in the online medical journal Lancet: Diabetes and Endocrinology, has been co-authored by Professor John Terry, a mathematician from the University of Exeter and Professor Stafford Lightman, a clinical endocrinologist from the University of Bristol.

They focused on the dynamics of natural hormone secretion and subsequent effects on the brain and other organs. Combining mathematical modelling with the latest clinical and experimental data, they found that the body regulates the release of crucial steroid hormones (such as cortisol) in pulses approximately every hour.

In stark contrast to this, modern medications deliver replacement steroids in oral doses that gradually disperse throughout the body. This results in a pattern of hormone in the body totally different from the normal body rhythm, which can cause malfunction of many body systems that have evolved to respond to a dynamic pattern of hormone levels. Significantly, many conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep apnoea are also associated with disruptions to the body's internal rhythmic secretion of hormones.

Professor Terry, from Exeter's College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences said: "The body secretes small amounts of steroid in pulses, and it is far better for science to work in harmony with this natural process than to override it.

"Mathematics enables us to understand these natural secretion patterns, and may help us develop new treatments that maximise the therapeutic benefit of steroids, whilst minimising their disruption to the natural workings of the body. It could mean that we alleviate the suffering of patients who endure debilitating side-effects as a consequence of their treatment.

"We evaluated both clinical and experimental evidence and concluded that rather than design new drugs, pharmaceutical companies should instead develop chronotherapy, which is the use of rhythmic cycles in the application of therapy. This is great news for healthcare, as it means the formulations of current available, and cost-effective, drugs could be released into the blood in a manner that mimics normal physiological release of steroids, such as cortisol."

Professor Lightman, from the University of Bristol added: "Steroid therapy is a very common treatment and unfortunately steroid treatment can result in many serious side effects. For example, patients with Addison's disease and on current best practice replacement therapy have mental and physical fatigue and there is also evidence they have an increase in mortality equivalent to that caused by smoking."

"It has been so frustrating to witness the poor quality of life of many of my patients on steroid hormones."

"The concept of understanding and using improved patterns of hormone release offers real hope to these people."


Please note the strict embargo in place of 00.01 (GMT) on Tuesday, February 18 2014.

For further information please contact:

Duncan Sandes
University of Exeter
Press Office
+44 (0)1392 722062

About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 18,000 students and is ranked 8th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide 2014. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 90% of the University's research was rated as being at internationally recognised levels and 16 of its 31 subjects are ranked in the top 10, with 27 subjects ranked in the top 20. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the last few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for another £330 million of investment between now and 2016.

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