Evidence matters to the public

Join us on 1st November at Parliament to make the case

Learn more

What Works Global Summit. Register now.

Putting evidence at the heart of policy and practice. 26th - 28th September.

Learn more

Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

Learn more

'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

Learn more

Making Sense of Drug Safety Science

Investigating the science of side effects

Experiencing side effects is unpleasant, and not understanding them is frustrating. While it's impossible to have a drug with no side effects, in our guide Making Sense of Drug Safety Science we explain why they happen and what can be done about them.

Severe side effects account for one in sixteen NHS hospital admissions and take up four per cent of hospital bed capacity. Many of these are preventable. Research to better understand drug side effects is now finding solutions that will prevent side effects derailing the development of new drugs, and avoid severe side effects from currently-available drugs.

Drugs are currently withdrawn from use if there are reports of severe side effects. This has already included painkillers, anti-diabetic and anti-HIV drugs. Although severe side effects are usually rare, if a drug is withdrawn because one person in 10,000 suffers, that means 9,999 people have to stop using a medicine that works. By first identifying which rare drug side effects can be predicted, researchers can develop tests that will tell doctors which patients can safely be given a drug. Scientists at the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science, who collaborated on the guide, are developing predictive tests to identify those people who will suffer extreme drug side effects. These will also allow the drugs to be given safely to other patients.

The guide was developed in collaboration with the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science at the University of Liverpool with support from the MRC. 


Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science: "This guide provides an insight into how UK academia and industry partners are tackling the problem of side effects. It's important that we all understand that investment in this type of research plays such a significant role in minimising the risks presented by new drugs, as well as helping to get new drugs to the market and saving the NHS millions of pounds. This work has a global impact and I hope to see the MRC Centre for Drug Safety in Science continue to perform an important role in society for years to come."

Dr Keith Ridge, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer: "We know that serious drug side effects are having an impact on which medicines we can use and how. We need to understand more about side effects and who will be at risk to use a wider number of existing drugs safely, develop new drugs more effectively, and allocate healthcare funds more efficiently. I welcome this guide to help demystify why side effects happen for the public, policy makers and clinical professionals."

Patricia Roberts who suffered from a disease caused by severe drug side effect: "When the symptoms started, I had no idea about Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and that it was caused by the drug I was taking. Although it is rare, it can be fatal in just a few hours so you need immediate treatment. I feel passionately that more people need to know about the enormity of this condition so they can get the right treatment quickly enough; but, most importantly, we need prevention.”

Professor Kevin Park, director of the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science “Our research is increasing what we know about drug safety and helping us to give people better information about the risks associated with medicines. Improving our understanding of the mechanisms that lead to serious adverse side effects will lead to existing medicines being prescribed more safely and new medicines being developed more effectively. Through this guide we want to share with patients, GPs and other health professionals why drug safety science matters to everyone."

Martyn Lobley, GP and medical journalist: "Show me a drug with no side effects and I'll show you a drug with no benefits. When you take a medicine you're entering into a bargain. The prescriber, to the best of their knowledge, gives you a medicine that will do you more good than harm, but you have to accept the risk that it may do you more harm than good. For some medicines, we understand the risks and can mitigate them, but for others the knowledge is just not there yet."

Suma Surendranath, Professional Engagement and Education Manager, Parkinson's UK: "As there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, medications are the main way in which symptoms are managed. We know that side-effects of medication are a critical issue for people with Parkinson’s, particularly when they have the potential to damage lives.  We have seen this with impulsive and compulsive behaviour, an unwelcome side-effect of some Parkinson’s medication. Some people may experience minor but manageable changes of behaviour, however, for others, it can lead to destructive and uncharacteristic obsessions, for example with gambling, hypersexuality and compulsive spending. Whilst we continue to work to raise awareness of these side-effects with professionals, we welcome the Making Sense of Drug Safety Science guide which highlights the need to keep drug safety, including the impact of side-effects, central to the early development of new medications."

Read a collection of tweets about the launch of this Guide on Storify