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Non-communicable diseases

Diseases that cannot be passed from one individual to another by an infectious agent, for example heart disease, most cancers.

Cardiovascular disease

Disease that affects the heart and circulatory system.

Type 1 diabetes

Develops when the body does not produce the right amount of insulin or, in some cases, does not produce any at all. It must be treated with daily injections of insulin. People affected also need to manage their diet, eat regularly and plan exercise carefully to balance their energy needs with their food and insulin intake.


Medicine that is used to treat bacterial infections and works by killing or stopping the growth and reproduction of bacteria. These can be specific to a particular bacteria or act on groups of related bacteria.  


A bacterium, virus, or other microorganism, capable of causing disease.


Single-celled organism. Has a cell wall, cell membrane, cytoplasm. Its DNA is loosely-coiled in the cytoplasm and there is no distinct nucleus


A list of often difficult or specialised words with their definitions.


Protozoa are one-celled animals


The smallest of living organisms. Viruses are made up of a ball of protein that contains a small amount of the virus DNA. They can only reproduce after they have infected a host cell


A mass of abnormal cells which keep multiplying in an uncontrolled way.


A condition where the airways of the lungs narrow in response to an environmental or internal trigger making it difficult to breathe


Fungi (singular fungus) are either uni-cellular, as in yeasts, or multi-cellular, as in mushrooms, toadstools and moulds. Fungi have a nucleus, cytoplasm and a cell wall


The basic unit from which all living organisms are built up, consisting of a cell membrane surrounding cytoplasm and a nucleus.


Deoxyribonucleic acid. This is the molecule which contains the genetic code. It coils up tightly inside chromosomes. DNA is a double helix made from two strands which are joined together by pairs of bases.

How medicines work: the ongoing battle between people and disease

Throughout human history people have suffered from both communicable and non-communicable diseases. And throughout history people have looked for ways to treat or cure those diseases. For centuries we had little or no idea what causes disease, and so our attempts to find medicines were limited. Today our knowledge of the processes of disease is growing all the time – and with it, our understanding of which medicines to use and how they work.

Medicines, along with global improvements in living conditions, offer us our greatest hope for progress in patient health. Over the centuries we have made many advances in medicine. In the 21st century we continue to see health outcomes improve dramatically as we develop and use new medicines and new approaches to treatments.

Some medicines do not actually treat our diseases – they simply relieve the symptoms and make us feel better. That alone is useful when suffering from a cold or indigestion! Other medicines can actually make us better and cure our illness.

Some diseases are communicable, caused by infectious agents known as pathogens. Antibiotics are medicines that can cure diseases caused by bacteria, whilst antifungals treat infections caused by fungi. Other pathogens, including most viruses and many protozoa, are less easy to treat and scientists are still working hard to find effective medicines against them.

Medicine on spoon

Medicines can be delivered as syrups, drips, sprays, suppositories and injections – but tablets and capsules like these are the most familiar form of medicines for most of us.

Many diseases are non-communicable. Some, such as cardiovascular disease and type 1 diabetes, occur when body systems stop functioning properly. Others, including allergies and asthma, are the result of systems working too well. And some diseases, such as cancer, are the result of changes in our genetic material. Scientists are developing more ways of diagnosing disease, and more and different medicines to help us overcome them. Now they are harnessing the ability to sequence genomes – the individual DNA sequences that control our cells, and those of our pathogens – to help develop new and better medicines. Understanding how these medicines work gives us an amazing glimpse into human biology – and human ingenuity!

Photos by Anthony Short unless credited otherwise.

How to use this site

There are a number of interactive features in this e-source:

  • A glossary of terms: any word with a glossary entry is highlighted like this. Moving the mouse over the highlighted word will show a definition of that word.
  • Quick questions: at the end of most pages or sections there is a question or set of quick questions to test your understanding.
  • Animations: most of the animations can be expanded to full screen size, ideal for showing on an interactive whiteboard. The animations will play all the way through or can be viewed one section at a time.
  • Downloads: Teachers can download individual diagrams, animations and other content from the Download Library area of the website. Terms and Conditions apply.