Ibuprofen tablets in palm of hand. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Since its launch in 1969, ibuprofen has become one of the UK’s biggest-selling drugs, helping millions find fast and effective pain relief.

But the popular pain-killer has been dogged by safety concerns about damage caused to the stomach lining over time.

It has been more than a decade since studies showed arthritis patients who regularly took doses of 2400mg a day were three times more likely to suffer potentially fatal gastric bleeding than those not on the medication.

Ibuprofen can damage the protective barrier of mucus that lines the stomach and reduce blood flow to the lining, making it harder for ulcers or perforations to heal.

But now British company infirst Healthcare has come up with a solution that could allow people in chronic pain the same amount of relief from ibuprofen with half the dose - and no risk of gastric bleeding.

The secret is mixing ibuprofen with a fatty substance called a lipid, which occurs naturally in the body. “The drug is designed to melt into a liquid but, crucially, it does not mix with water in the stomach,” says Dr John Brew, a pharmacologist at the company. It passes through the stomach to the lower intestines where it is more effectively taken up.

Instead, he says, the drug floats on the surface of the liquid in the stomach, much like a blob of fat in a washing-up bowl.

This is thought to be the key to why the new formulation is potentially much safer and more effective than standard ibuprofen.

The new ibuprofen is safer because it never comes into contact with the stomach lining, says Brew.

The theory is that ibuprofen is also more effective when absorbed through the duodenum than the stomach, because this part of the intestine connects directly with the lymphatic system, which transports fluids in and out of the bloodstream.