Whether you have a sore throat, a headache, or fall over and hurt yourself, to ease the pain you might take a painkiller. Paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin… you swallow a couple with water and after about 20 minutes your symptoms start to disappear! Amazing!
It comes as no surprise that painkillers are 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. But how do they work? Like most people, I hadn’t really thought about this in much detail before, despite having taken painkillers in some form throughout my life.
As part of our public engagement program, we teamed up with the British Pharmacological Society to make a hands-on activity called Medicine Makers. This activity illustrates how painkillers work within our bodies. It debuted at Big Biology Day 2014 on Saturday 18 October at Hills Road School, Cambridge. This event was part of Biology Week, organised by the Society of Biology.
The aim of the activity was to show how molecules of paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin travel around your body and locate the COX2 enzyme. COX2 releases tiny hormone-like molecules called prostaglandins, which cause us pain and inflammation. When painkillers bind to COX2 they change its structure, preventing it from releasing prostaglandins which reduces pain.
To illustrate this process we had a 3D printed model of COX2, complete with tiny aspirin molecules buried in its active site. We also had separate aspirin models on hand, so visitors could see how small they were in comparison to the protein! Our COX2 model is 7.5 million times bigger than the COX2 enzymes working inside our bodies.
The children then made models of paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin out of card, pipecleaners and beads. They then had to match up the coloured beads on their painkiller to the coloured beads on the protein models we made out of toobers. By matching the colours, the children could see the specificity of enzyme-substrate interactions – the drugs don’t bind to COX2 randomly, they each have a specific site they bind to on the enzyme. Visitors could take their medicine model home with them, alongside colourful hand-outs to remind them of the activity.
All in all, it was a great day! Thanks to our brilliant volunteers, visitors to our stand became Medicine Makers and took home a basic understanding of how painkillers work. We received excellent feedback and look forward to further developing the activity and taking it to more science festivals in the future!