Today there is still a lack of viable treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and many cancers, all of which are affecting an ever-growing number of people.
While technology is advancing at a rapid rate, the drug development process remains hampered by the vast lengths of time it can take for medications to pass through all the necessary stages, something which is proving an even greater issue since the recession, which saw many companies and research facilities forced to make cutbacks.
However, a team at the University of Stanford have come up with an innovative new method which they hope will cut a significant amount of time off the drug development process.
The team's new biosensor microchip holds more than 100,000 magnetically sensitive nanosensors which can be used to analyse how proteins bond – an intrinsic part of the drug development process.
These nanosensors are key to analysing not only how effective a drug is likely to be, but also the impact of any side effects, which is one of the things which can keep drugs tied up in testing for long periods.
"You can fit thousands, even tens of thousands, of different proteins of interest on the same chip and run the protein-binding experiments in one shot," said Shan Wang, a professor of materials science and engineering, and of electrical engineering, who led the research.
According to the scientists, the chip's power lies in two different areas, firstly the use of magnetic nanotags and secondly an analytical model the team developed to speed up the monitoring process during tests.
The nanotags, which are attached to the protein being studied at any given time, work by greatly increasing the sensitivity of the monitoring process, while the model enables researchers to predict the outcome of an interaction within just minutes, knocking hours off the current time.
It is widely recognised that the developments could have a notable effect on the drug development process, with P.J. Utz, associate professor of medicine (immunology and rheumatology) at Stanford University Medical Center, commenting: "I think their technology has the potential to revolutionise how we do bioassays."
Tests of the technology conducted over recent years have highlighted the super sensitivity of the nanosensors, highlighting that they are able to detect a cancer-associated protein biomarker in mouse blood at a thousandth of the concentration of commercially available techniques.
So, the question on the pharmaceutical sector's lips will be when does this industry-changing technology start having an impact on drug development.
Professor Wang has stated that the next step is to "marry" the technology with a specific type of drug for it to have maximum impact.
"That will be the really killer application of this technology," he concluded.
With so many drugs under development and so many conditions which need treatments either discovering or improving, it will be tough to select one medication. However, if the development lives up to its hype, it could be that it will play a part in the development of hundreds of drugs in the future.