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The hidden dangers in ‘safe’ drugs

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Nearly 40 inert ingredients in common prescription drugs have been identified as potentially causing harm to patients.

The ingredients, known as excipients, extend the product’s shelf life or give the pill colour – and they have always been regarded as insert substances, and so haven’t been properly assessed for their safety.

But when researchers from the University of California at San Francisco examined more than 3,000 excipients used by drug manufacturers, they discovered that 38 of them interact with human enzymes and receptors.

The damage they can do isn’t always immediately apparent, and so any dangers aren’t picked up in animal studies, but can be subtle and just as damaging in the long term. These effects can also be magnified in someone taking two or more prescription drugs.

Their findings endorse “anecdotal evidence that excipients may be the culprits of unexpected physiological effects,” said Joshua Pottel, one of the researchers. His team was “surprised” by the potency of some of the excipients, which have been used in thousands of drugs for decades that they have slipped under the radar of safety trials.

Drug companies need to take a look at the way drugs are formulated and review the excipients they use and seek out safer ones, he added.

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(Source: Science, 2020; doi: 10.1126/science.aaz9906

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