Medicine Makers at Big Biology Day 2014

Most of us will have taken medicine in some form; suffering through injections at the doctors, swallowing spoonfuls of sticky cough syrup or taking tablets of various shapes, sizes and colours. From an early age, we know that when we get sick we should take some medicine, in whatever form is appropriate for our condition. We rely on these medicines to make us feel better, we know they will ease our symptoms… but how do they work?

As part of our public engagement program, the Biochemical Society and the British Pharmacological Society have teamed up to create an exciting, hands-on activity called Medicine Makers. This activity will focus on the roles of biochemists and pharmacologists in discovering and developing drugs, as well as offering an insight into how medicines work in our bodies.

Biologists, pharmacologists and chemists work together to identify potential new drugs. However, developing a new drug is costly and time consuming. It takes 10-15 years and millions of pounds to take a drug from target identification (understanding how a disease works and how a drug will affect it) to approval, where the drug is licensed and made available to the public.

Our new activity Medicine Makers focuses on painkillers. These pharmaceutical agents are one of the most widely used classes of drugs, with over 70 million prescriptions and more than 30 billion over-the counter tablets sold annually in the United States alone.

3D printed model of COX2 enzyme and aspirin molecules
3D printed model of COX2 enzyme and aspirin molecules

One of the ways in which a medicine can help a patient is by binding to a protein in the body and changing the way it does its job. Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many different roles in our bodies. They are made up of chains of small units called amino acids, which fold into unique, complex 3D structures. The structure of a protein determines its function.

When a painkiller binds to a protein, it changes the proteins structure which can stop it performing its job, or slow it down. In order to do this the medicine must fit into a specific space on the surface of the protein or enzyme, called the active site. One protein associated with painkillers is an enzyme called COX2. To illustrate how this enzyme works, we have a 3D printed model of COX2 for visitors to handle. Our model is 7.5 million times bigger than the actual enzymes at work in our cells!

There is also the opportunity to get creative! You can create paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin, or invent your own brand new medicine. The challenge is to fit your medicine model into the active site of the proteins at the stand! Your medicine model can be taken home, complete with an identity tag, to remind you what you made.

Come and see us at Big Biology Day on Saturday 18th October 2014 at Hills Road College, Cambridge between 10am and 4pm. This event is part of Biology Week, organised by the Society of Biology.

We have volunteers from the membership helping us out at this event. If you would like to join out volunteer list for future events, please email

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