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It may come as a surprise to learn that one of the most important tools in a surgical procedure — general anesthesia — hasn’t actually undergone any substantial changes from a pharmacological perspective for several decades. Indeed, the last time a new general anesthetic was synthesized by drug companies was back in the 1970s with propofol.
The reason behind this seeming lack of progress, say experts, is that the big drug companies prefer to direct their resources toward areas where work is needed the most, not those areas where established products are performing satisfactorily.
This approach perhaps makes sense when you consider that the anesthesia fatality rate currently sits at less than one death in 100,000 cases, down from two in 10,000 a few decades ago.
Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that the general anesthetics used today can still have very troublesome side effects (nausea, changes in blood pressure), and the growing theory that multiple anesthesia exposures among both the very young and the very old can result in cognitive problems. This is not to mention that the margin of error for administering the right amount and the fatal amount of general anesthetic is razor thin.
In light of this reality, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine are currently hard at work looking for a better and altogether safer alternative to the most common general anesthetics.
Using what is known as a robotic screen, they’ve scanned the National Institutes of Health’s database of known chemical compounds to identify those that formed a strong bond with a particular type of protein known to respond favorably to current anesthetics.
Having identified numerous matches, the researchers are now hard at work attempting to find a viable chemical solution, including tests on mice and tadpoles, both of which exhibit remarkably similar behaviors to humans regarding general anesthetics.
We’ll have to wait and see if these efforts result in the creation of a new and altogether safer anesthetic. Given all that can go wrong for patients when anesthesia is administered incorrectly, here’s hoping their efforts prove successful.