Taking Medicines

As scientists learn more about human biology, they will discover how to identify and attack the root causes of many more health problems. Research findings that explain how the body works pave the way to finding safer and better treatments for diseases.

Lots of hard work goes into developing new medicines to improve health and fight illness. The National Institutes of Health makes these breakthroughs possible by supporting research to understand the basic biology of health and disease.

Drugs for Diseases of Aging

More than 800 medicines are in development for diseases of aging, according to data from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Among these are many new drugs for heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

These medicines are either in clinical trials or are awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Hundreds more molecules, materials, and procedures are in earlier stages of laboratory testing.

Heart Disease and Stroke

The leading cause of death for Americans over 65 is heart disease. Researchers are working on many new drugs for congestive heart failure and for stroke.

Scientists are also developing drugs that will protect the brain after a stroke and medicines that can stimulate blood vessel growth around blocked arteries. This latter approach could help an ailing circulatory system to heal itself.

Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's Disease

New drugs are in the pipeline to treat brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, which together affect over 5 million people nationwide.

Researchers are perfecting a new imaging technique that may be able to diagnose Parkinson's earlier. This may allow doctors to prevent the progression of this debilitating illness of the nervous system.

Until the 1990's, there were no medicines approved to treat Alzheimer's disease in the United States. Today, there are FDA-approved Alzheimer's medicines on the market, but none of these drugs can stop or prevent the disease. They can only treat the symptoms.

Researchers working with a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease are currently trying to develop a protective vaccine. However, no vaccines for Alzheimer's have been proven to work in humans.

Drugs for Pain

More than half of Americans over 65 experience pain every day, and pain is the top reason for visits to the doctor's office. Scientists are currently testing a number of new pain medicines.

Many of the pain medicines they are testing aim to treat arthritis, which affects nearly three-quarters of all seniors reporting frequent pain. As researchers fill in the details of how pain starts and persists in the body, they are closing in on different ways to interfere with these processes.

New medicines, including painkillers, have arisen from very unlikely sources. For example, in 2004 the Food and Drug Administration approved a pain drug derived from toxin-spitting cone snails -- among the deadliest of ocean creatures. The drug, called Prialt®, or ziconotide, is used to treat the type of severe chronic pain that often accompanies cancer, AIDS, and other disorders.

New Surgical Procedures

Some of the most exciting new therapies on the horizon are true marvels of chemical engineering: "self-tying" sutures and biological screws. Although doctors routinely use dissolvable sutures, or stitches, to repair wounds caused by injury or surgery, this is difficult or impossible in tight spaces inside the body where a surgeon cannot reach in with his or her hand.

Biological plastics that do the job themselves may allow surgical tasks that are much less invasive, making procedures safer and recovery quicker.