By pure coincidence, BBC produced a program about pain killers called Pain, Pus and Poison: The Search for Modern Medicines at about the same time I was writing my article called Aleve, Advil, Aspirin Alert. After watching it this evening, I wanted to make a couple of comments, particularly about aspirin.
In the programme, Michael Mosley says that 40 billion aspirin tablets are eaten around the world every year. I’m not sure if he means tablets that contain nothing but aspirin or whether this also includes tablets that have other things added, like Anacin with caffeine, and headache powders, etc. At any rate, that’s a lot of aspirin.
At 39 minutes and 14 seconds into the hour long programme, Dr Walter Sneader, Former Head of the School of Pharmacy, University of Strathclyde tells the viewer that plants containing salicylates may have been used as pain killers, but they didn’t work. He said that this historical claim is nonsense. But that’s not what others say (see From experience to design – The science behind Aspirin). He further explained in the programme that it takes the acetyl group in aspirin to kill pain and that aspirin is a synthetic drug that was developed from the by-product coal tar. Aspirin is an acetyl derivative of salicylic acid. It was first isolated by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist with the German company Bayer in 1897.(Wiki  ). As a by the way, “Acetylated organic molecules exhibit increased ability to cross the selectively permeable blood–brain barrier” (Wiki).
This information would not be easy to put together with a quick Internet research (no mention of coal tar under Aspirin in Wiki), and it takes a chemistry degree to begin to understand it all. However, it adds to the already dubious quality of aspirin that I touched on in my article. It was said that aspirin works locally by blocking pain before it gets to the spinal cord. Unfortunately, aspirin does not just work where there is pain.
At the end of the programme, a brief mention was made about how new medicines are being formulated by using compound banks in order to target pain more effectively. It was mentioned how current drugs such as aspirin have negative effects on unintended biological functions. Enzymes were mentioned. I discussed this in my last article.
In a Guardian review of the television programme, the reviewer questioned why the part Chinese medicines and acupuncture have played in the history of pain relief weren’t raised. The point is that the programme was very shallow as is a lot of pharmacological thinking, but I did find the information about aspirin coming from coal tar enlightening.
Image credit with thanks: The Guardian, Pain, Pus & Poison: The Search for Modern Medicines – TV review. Strange statue he has with him.