Chemistry with a difference

For a career that combines chemistry, biology, technology and many more disciplines, study medicinal chemistry.

There’s a good chance that sometime during the next twelve months you, a family member or a friend will get sick and require some type of drug therapy to overcome the illness.

The drug therapy might involve the treatment of a bacterial infection by a new type of antibiotic designed to combat bacterial resistance to existing antibiotics, a combination of anti-viral drugs to stop virus replication for the treatment of diseases like HIV, hepatitis and influenza, or the use of a cancer drug that targets a particular protein to stop the growth of cancerous cells in the body.

Modern drugs used to treat disease are designed and prepared by chemists that 
have undertaken specialised training in medicinal chemistry.

Chemists working in a lab

“A variety of career pathways are available for medicinal chemistry graduates”

Computer-aided design and modelling is applied to the design of effective drugs by investigating important chemical and structural properties of potential drug molecules and their mode of interaction at receptor sites in the body. Acquired knowledge of various chemical types and reaction schemes are applied in synthesis laboratories to produce new organic and inorganic compounds as potential therapeutic agents. A medicinal chemist acquires specialised skills in modern techniques of chemical science related to 
the design and synthesis of new drugs.

Many therapeutic drugs are small organic molecules or inorganic compounds that regulate the biological action of a biomolecule such as a protein. The size, shape and charge of a drug must be carefully considered during its design so that it can effectively interact at the appropriate receptor site of the selected biomolecule.

Medicinal chemists determine the structure of a drug and probe the interaction between drug and biomolecule by using advanced instrumental techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, mass spectrometry and x-ray crystallography.

As well as specialised training in chemistry, medicinal chemists also acquire specialised knowledge in related disciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology, human physiology and pharmacology, so that they can understand the effects of therapeutic agents on the body. Some drugs used to treat human illnesses can also be effectively used to treat animals; medicinal chemists also work with veterinary scientists to modify drugs for improved animal efficacy.

A variety of career pathways are available for medicinal chemistry graduates. Some remain in the laboratory, continuing to apply their acquired knowledge to the design and synthesis of new therapeutic agents. Their careers progress as they are promoted to senior positions perhaps, ultimately, as head of a research team.

Others might use the science and people skills acquired while working as part of a team in various research laboratories and, subsequently, apply these skills to management roles in commercial or government organisations. There are many employment opportunities for medicinal chemists. They are employed by pharmaceutical/drug companies, medical research institutes, government drug and health regulatory agencies, legal services as patent or expert consultants, and biotechnology organisations.

Medicinal chemists are trained in multiple science disciplines and apply their specialised knowledge and laboratory skills to design and prepare therapeutic drugs to improve the health and lives of people.

Written by Dr Ian Potter (2011)
Head
Department of Chemistry
La Trobe University (Australia)

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