• Question: Why do some medicines taste horrible and they do not work sometimes?

    Asked by RiannaY11 to Rob, Imad, Hannah, Fern, Christian, Carol on 13 Jun 2019.
    • Photo: Rob Ives

      Rob Ives answered on 13 Jun 2019:


      Hello. Most drugs, including medicines are actually ‘poisons’ (don’t worry, they are safe at the levels the doctor tells you to take). In nature, most animals (and even some micro-organisms) have ways to avoid eating poisons. Mammals have taste receptors in their mouths that tell us if something is likely to harm us and usually, the taste for poison is ‘bitter’. Humans can ‘taste’ up to 25 different types of bitter (which is a lot) and the horrible taste is supposed to make us spit them out or even be sick. As medicines are actually poisons, they tend to taste bitter, some worse than others. My rats taste bitter medicines pretty much the same as us humans. I’ve also worked with amoeba (tiny single celled organisms) and even they can tell if some medicines taste bitter (but no where as good as a rat or human).

      Most medicines work for some people but not others. As humans, we are all slightly different because of our ‘genes’ and this can make us respond differently to medicines. Often, people from different parts of the world need to take very different amounts of medicine and this is something which takes the doctors and scientists quite a long time to work out.

    • Photo: Fern Johnson

      Fern Johnson answered on 14 Jun 2019:


      I don’t know why they taste bad (Rob has that covered) but why they don’t work sometimes is interesting! People are mostly the same but everyone is unique, because of our genes. Some people get an upset stomach when they have milk, most people don’t – this is because of differences in the genes that are involved in digesting it. In the same way, differences in genes can effect how medicines work, though this is still poorly understood. We probably understand it best in cancer, because we get cancer when special genes get damaged and can’t stop cells multiplying and growing, like when the breaks fail on a car. We know a lot about these genes, and even that once one gene breaks, other genes start breaking too. We know that different cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, work much better when some genes are broken, but could make things worse. For some types of cancer we always look at which genes have broken in the cancer, so doctors can give the best treatments.
      In the future we’re trying to work towards personalised medicines – this is where we’ve look at a person’s genes when they get ill, and give them a treatment what we’re confident will work for them. This is much better because people should get better quicker, or have less nasty side effects. It also saves money on trying medicine that doesn’t work. It’s very exciting!

    • Photo: Carol Wallace

      Carol Wallace answered on 17 Jun 2019:


      Everyone is different and we all don’t react to medicines in the same way. we all have different bugs in our guts and they can interact with medicines too. Differences in metabolism can affect how the drug is broken down in the body. so there are lots of reasons why some drugs don’t work with you.
      Some of the active ingredients of drugs taste disgusting, and they have to have other things added to make them taste better – but you can’t always mask the disgusting taste.

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