A new article has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability highlighting that there is an urgent need to design ‘greener’ drugs.

The publication of the report falls on World Environment Day, which is organised by the United Nations and celebrated annually on 5 June. It encourages awareness and action for the protection of the environment, supported by many non-governmental organisations, businesses, and government entities.

The report published in Nature Sustainability has highlighted that emissions to the environment during drug production, use, and disposal have resulted in global ecosystems being polluted with mixtures of pharmaceuticals, posing increasing risks to both wildlife and human health.

A recent large-scale study measured 61 different drugs in river water from 1052 locations across 104 different countries, finding that 43% of sites had drug levels exceeding safe ecological thresholds. Some places had up to 34 active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) mixed into the water.

Due to this widespread pollution, certain APIs are now listed as priority substances in European water regulations. The study warns that drug pollution is pushing our planet’s environment beyond safe limits, highlighting the need for more eco-friendly drug practices.

The report – led by 17 leading international scientists – emphasises that pharmaceuticals are essential to modern healthcare, however, the researchers highlight the need for designing and manufacturing more sustainable drugs to tackle the source of the issue.

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Speaking to Clinical Trials Arena, Charles Tyler, professor of environmental biology and ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter said: “Designing and manufacturing of ‘greener’ drugs will help ensure the sustainability of the pharmaceutical industry (and medicare) as this will play a major part in efforts to minimise its impacts to the environment.”

This topic is more important than ever. At COP28, several pharmaceutical industry advocacy and lobby organisations joined forces to release a joint industry statement supporting the Declaration on Climate and Health. The declaration highlighted the negative impacts of climate change on health, and details objectives to ensure better health outcomes, such as implementing adaptation interventions against climate-sensitive disease and health risks.

However, the pursuit of pharma to become more sustainable is a challenging one. Several pharma companies have made commitments, with the target of net zero for 2050. One initiative aimed at reducing carbon emissions is by replacing fossil-fuel-derived chemicals used in small-molecule drugs with synthetic biology. Chemical processes seen in nature such as microbial enzymes or a fermentation-based method could significantly reduce the energy-intensive chemical synthesis of raw materials.

The report concludes with the scientists urging drug designers, manufacturers, scientists, and policymakers to recognise the growing environmental threat posed by APIs, calling them to “urgently prioritise the sustainable molecular design of greener drugs to prevent further environmental harm”.