Anti-inflammatory drugs in the 21st century

Subcell Biochem. 2007;42:3-27. doi: 10.1007/1-4020-5688-5_1.


Historically, anti-inflammatory drugs had their origins in the serendipitous discovery of certain plants and their extracts being applied for the relief of pain, fever and inflammation. When salicylates were discovered in the mid-19th century to be the active components of Willow Spp., this enabled these compounds to be synthesized and from this, acetyl-salicylic acid or Aspirin was developed. Likewise, the chemical advances of the 19th-20th centuries lead to development of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), most of which were initially organic acids, but later non-acidic compounds were discovered. There were two periods of NSAID drug discovery post-World War 2, the period up to the 1970's which was the pre-prostaglandin period and thereafter up to the latter part of the last century in which their effects on prostaglandin production formed part of the screening in the drug-discovery process. Those drugs developed up to the 1980-late 90's were largely discovered empirically following screening for anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic activities in laboratory animal models. Some were successfully developed that showed low incidence of gastro-intestinal (GI) side effects (the principal adverse reaction seen with NSAIDs) than seen with their predecessors (e.g. aspirin, indomethacin, phenylbutazone); the GI reactions being detected and screened out in animal assays. In the 1990's an important discovery was made from elegant molecular and cellular biological studies that there are two cyclo-oxygenase (COX) enzyme systems controlling the production of prostanoids [prostaglandins (PGs) and thromboxane (TxA2)]; COX-1 that produces PGs and TxA2 that regulate gastrointestinal, renal, vascular and other physiological functions, and COX-2 that regulates production of PGs involved in inflammation, pain and fever. The stage was set in the 1990's for the discovery and development of drugs to selectively control COX-2 and spare the COX-1 that is central to physiological processes whose inhibition was considered a major factor in development of adverse reactions, including those in the GI tract. At the turn of this century, there was enormous commercial development following the introduction of two new highly selective COX-2 inhibitors, known as coxibs (celecoxib and rofecoxib) which were claimed to have low GI side effects. While found to have fulfilled these aims in part, an alarming turn of events took place in the late 2004 period when rofecoxib was withdrawn worldwide because of serious cardiovascular events and other coxibs were subsequently suspected to have this adverse reaction, although to a varying degree. Major efforts are currently underway to discover why cardiovascular reactions took place with coxibs, identify safer coxibs, as well as elucidate the roles of COX-2 and COX-1 in cardiovascular diseases and stroke in the hope that there may be some basis for developing newer agents (e.g. nitric oxide-donating NSAIDs) to control these conditions. The discovery of the COX isoforms led to establishing their importance in many non-arthritic or non-pain states where there is an inflammatory component to pathogenesis, including cancer, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. The applications of NSAIDs and the coxibs in the prevention and treatment of these conditions as well as aspirin and other analogues in the prevention of thrombo-embolic diseases now constitute one of the major therapeutic developments of the this century. Moreover, new anti-inflammatory drugs are being discovered and developed based on their effects on signal transduction and as anti-cytokine agents and these drugs are now being heralded as the new therapies to control those diseases where cytokines and other nonprostaglandin components of chronic inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases are manifest. To a lesser extent safer application of corticosteroids and the applications of novel drug delivery systems for use with these drugs as well as with NSAIDs also represent newer technological developments of the 21st century. What started out as drugs to control inflammation, pain and fever in the last two centuries now has exploded to reveal an enormous range and type of anti-inflammatory agents and discovery of new therapeutic targets to treat a whole range of conditions that were never hitherto envisaged.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal* / adverse effects
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal* / history
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal* / therapeutic use
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / chemically induced
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / drug therapy
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / enzymology
  • Cyclooxygenase 1 / metabolism
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 / metabolism
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 Inhibitors* / adverse effects
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 Inhibitors* / history
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 Inhibitors* / therapeutic use
  • Cytokines / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Digestive System Diseases / chemically induced
  • Digestive System Diseases / drug therapy
  • Digestive System Diseases / enzymology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Delivery Systems* / adverse effects
  • Drug Delivery Systems* / history
  • Drug Design
  • Fever / drug therapy
  • Fever / enzymology
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / drug therapy
  • Inflammation / enzymology
  • Isoenzymes / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Isoenzymes / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / chemically induced
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / drug therapy
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / enzymology
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain / enzymology
  • Prostaglandins / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Stroke / chemically induced
  • Stroke / drug therapy
  • Stroke / enzymology
  • Thromboxane A2 / metabolism


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 Inhibitors
  • Cytokines
  • Isoenzymes
  • Prostaglandins
  • Thromboxane A2
  • Cyclooxygenase 1
  • Cyclooxygenase 2