A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?

The field of Pharmacology is centuries old and it is very complex with respect to the wealth and depth of information available.  It is still evolving today.  The goal of this post is not to address every detail of the field, but instead to give readers a basic introductory understanding of the discipline.  Further details about the many aspects of Pharmacology can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

I earned my Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan.  I admittedly didn’t understand the field initially, although I did know that it dealt with drugs and hoped that a degree in it would one day secure a position for me in the Pharmaceutical industry.  Since starting my studies in 1999, completing my degree in 2005, and starting my current career as a Regulatory Scientist, I’ve gotten the same question over and over again, “You have a background in Pharmacology?  Are you a Pharmacist?”  At Career and STEM Fairs, I get this question a lot, and thus following my principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success“, I wanted to write a brief overview of the field – particularly for parents and young students who have an aptitude for science and may be interested in Pharmacology as a career one day.

“Simply put, Pharmacy is the study of what drugs do to man, and Pharmacology is the study of what man does to drugs,” said one of the Cancer Pharmacology faculty in our Principles of Pharmacology course during my first year of graduate school.  This statement explained in a very simple way some of the differences between the two disciplines.  Pharmacy is the study of the actual drugs administered to patients as therapeutic agents and its practitioners work at various institutions including hospitals, medical centers, and drug stores – CVS for example.  Pharmacists are health professionals, earn Doctor of Pharmacy degrees (Pharm Ds), are experts on medications, and are responsible for dispensing medicines.  Pharmacology is a basic research science that studies the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects of pharmaceuticals and potential drug candidates with the goal of developing and testing of new drugs.

All medical practitioners (Anesthesiologists, Physicians, Pharmacists, Nurses, Surgeons, etc.) must take Pharmacology courses as they all need some understanding of the mechanisms of the drugs they ultimately prescribe.  Pharmacologists are the actual researchers performing experiments trying to create new drugs and identify new drug targets.  They further seek to characterize how mammalian systems (in most cases human although they are also involved in developing veterinary drugs) handle molecules at the molecular, cellular, tissue and whole organism levels.  It’s a vast field with many areas of specialization that I’ll discuss in the remainder of this post.

Pharmacology classically can be divided into two parts; Pharmacokinetics, which deals with how the drug is absorbed and eliminated by the body, and Pharmacodynamics, which deals with how the drug exerts its medicinal effect mechanistically.  The following sub-disciplines within Pharmacology generally fall under one of these two umbrellas or, in most cases, are a mixture of the two.  Each of us or someone we know has taken a drug or a treatment which has been impacted by one of these areas.  Any pharmacologist reading this can easily further parse this list out into greater detail, but again this was written for a general audience:

  • ADME/Drug Metabolism: Deals with how the body handles the therapeutic molecules in terms of absorption (entry to the body), tissue accumulation (distribution), biotransformation (metabolism) of the molecule, and excretion (elimination). Another focus of ADME/Drug Metabolism is “Drug Transport” which focuses on how drugs are absorbed and effluxed from cells using membrane channels and transporters impacting their effectiveness.  I will revisit ADME/Drug Metabolism in greater detail in a separate post as me and some of my peers know it pretty well and find it to be a very exciting aspect of both Pharmacology and Toxicology.
  • Antimicrobial Pharmacology: Involves the control of bacteria, fungi, and viruses to fight off or prevent infections.
  • Autonomic Pharmacology: Deals with how the drug interacts with the Autonomic Nervous System (that part of the nervous system responsible for controlling bodily functions that are not consciously directed such as the heartbeat, breathing, and the digestive system) particularly through pathways involving epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and seratonin.
  • Cancer Pharmacology: Deals with drugs used in the treatment of cancer – usually some form of chemotherapy.
  • Cardiovascular Pharmacology: Deals with drugs used in treatment of heart disease and regulation of blood pressure.  A well-known class is the “Statins” – cholesterol lowering drugs such as “Lipitor“.
  • Endocrine and Receptor Pharmacology: Deals with how a given drug binds, interacts or even blockades a given cellular receptor, and then what the receptor does or doesn’t do to impact the homeostasis of that cell or tissue. The receptor can be membrane bound or cytosolic (many hormone receptors).
  • Drug Discovery: Typically associated with the private sector and deals with the identification of new drug entities and the identification of new drug targets. In industry, pharmacologists generally refer to drugs as either “small molecules” which are our classic drugs like Aspirin (~180 g/mol), or “large molecules” (as heavy as 150,000 g/mol) also known as “biologics” which are generally proteins which have therapeutic effects.  An example is Abbvie’sHumira”.  The units “g/mol” or grams per mole designate a chemical’s molecular weight and as you can see the size difference between the two classes is considerable.
  • Neuropharmacology: Similar to Autonomic Pharmacology but deals with all of the other parts of the nervous system such as pain responses – analgesics and anesthetics for example.
  • Pharmacogenomics: This new and exciting field looks at the genetics unique to individuals to determine the best treatments and dosages for that individual.

For each of these sub-disciplines there is a clinical side and a research side.  The clinical side is self-explanatory – it involves treating patients for various diseases as well as the prevention of illness by the above mentioned medical practitioners.  Think of the many medications you have been prescribed when you go to see medical doctors when you’re sick or for checkups, emergencies or surgeries.  But where do these medications come from originally?  Also, where will new medications come from in the future?

This is where the research side come comes into play.  At institutions like my alma mater, and in the private sector, there are scientists working year round on research projects asking questions about current medications in addition to trying to unlock the secrets of nature to create new therapeutics.  The investigations they perform involve testing molecules using whole animal models, cellular models, and in vitro systems to ask questions at the molecular level (proteins, lipids, DNA and RNA) about what the compound does.  It’s this research that can get very esoteric to the general public and that is published in academic journals including: Drug Metabolism and Disposition, the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Experimental Therapeutics, and Molecular Pharmacology.

Pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Pfizer conduct research as well but instead of doing it strictly to find new knowledge, it’s to create new drugs that they can sell.  The same is true for smaller Biotech companies like Biogen.  Both need scientists with backgrounds in Pharmacology.  The Federal Government also employs scientists with backgrounds in Pharmacology to determine the safety of new drugs before they can be prescribed to the general public.  The same is true for food products and chemicals used in those products, so Pharmacologists are literally everywhere.

Pharmacologists generally receive their training at major research universities.  While undergraduates can get training in Pharmacology – nursing students for example, degrees in Pharmacology are usually conferred at the Masters and Ph.D. levels and support for the student’s educational expenses as well as a modest salary are provided.  Upon attaining these degrees, scientists then determine which sector they want to pursue – academia, the private or public sectors, or nontraditional careers.  With the skills obtained in graduate school, scientists with these backgrounds have the flexibility to combine their knowledge sets with other disciplines to go into a wide variety of areas in addition to drug discovery in pharmaceutical companies and biotechs including: consulting, Toxicology, patent law and even starting their own companies.

If you are interested in learning more about the exciting field of Pharmacology, I suggest that you visit the website of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).  You can then click on the link on Education near the top of the page and once there, click on “What is Pharmacology” on the left side of the page.  In the last paragraph on that page, there is a link to a brochure entitled “Explore Pharmacology”, that provides a great deal of interesting information.  Speaking of ASPET, all scientific disciplines have their own professional societies with annual meetings that rotate cities every year, and where scientists congregate to show their results, and network.  The two major professional societies for pharmacologists are ASPET, and the International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics (ISSX).

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope I was able to shed some light onto what Pharmacology is.  A special thank you is also extended to Dr. Paul Hollenberg, Chair of the Department of Pharmacology at The University of Michigan when I was a student, who graciously looked at this post and gave feedback prior my publishing it.  The next posts in this series will talk about: the research aspect of Pharmacology, Drug Metabolism, Toxicology, Inhalation Toxicology and Regulatory Science/Risk Assessment.

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Author: anwaryusef

Anwar Y. Dunbar is a Regulatory Scientist. Being a naturally curious person, he is also a student of all things. He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU). Prior to starting the Big Words Blog Site, Anwar published and contributed to numerous research articles in competitive scientific journals reporting on his research from graduate school and postdoctoral years. After falling in love with writing, he contributed to the now defunct Examiner.com, and the Edvocate where he regularly wrote about: Education-related stories/topics, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Financial Literacy; as well as conducted interviews with notable individuals such as actor and author Hill Harper. Having many influences, one of his most notable heroes is author, intellectual and speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, author of books including Outliers and David and Goliath. Anwar has his hands in many, many activities. In addition to writing, Anwar actively mentors youth, works to spread awareness of STEM careers, serves on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium, serves as Treasurer for the JCSU Washington, DC Alumni Chapter, and is active in the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace Ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church. He also tutors in the subjects of biology, chemistry and physics. Along with his multi-talented older brother Amahl Dunbar (designer of the Big Words logos, inventor and a plethora of other things), Anwar is a “Fanboy” and really enjoys Science-Fiction and Superhero movies including but not restricted to Captain America Civil War, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Prometheus. He is a proud native of Buffalo, NY.

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