A pill that can correct a wide range of faulty genes which cause crippling illnesses should be available within three years, promising a revolution in the treatment of thousands of conditions.

The drug, known as PTC124, has already had encouraging results in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. The final phase of clinical trials is to begin this year, and it could be licensed as early as 2009.

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As well as offering hope of a first effective treatment for two conditions that are at present incurable, the drug has excited scientists because research suggests it should also work against more than 1,800 other genetic illnesses.

PTC124 targets a particular type of mutation that can cause very different symptoms according to the gene that is disrupted. This makes it potentially useful against a range of inherited disorders.

The same drug could be given to patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most serious form of the muscle-wasting condition, cystic fibrosis, which mainly affects the lungs, and haemophilia, in which the blood does not clot. It can be taken orally, and safety trials have not revealed any major side effects.