Pharmacology is the study of how drugs, as chemical agents, affect body functions in health and disease. In its widest sense, the term “drug” refers not only to chemicals produced by the body (e.g. neurotransmitters, hormones) but also to those used for medicinal (penicillin, aspirin), recreational (alcohol, nicotine) or illegal (heroin, cocaine) purposes. It also includes poisons (e.g. environmental pollutants, snake venoms, nerve gases in warfare) that may affect us involuntarily. Pharmacology is therefore a very important biomedical discipline, with roots both in basic biology and chemistry, and playing a vital role in helping to safeguard our health and welfare.
The Pharmacology degree programme is designed to show not only that drugs act at the level of the whole body or its individual organs, but also that these effects can result from specific drug actions on particular molecular components in different types of cells. Understanding these interactions has led to the development of exciting new drugs with novel mechanisms for treating such varied conditions as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, or bacterial infections. Also, this helps to improve existing medicines and to reduce any unwanted side effects. Many of today’s drugs are new chemicals synthesised by drug companies, but other drugs, discovered as natural products found in plants, bacteria, fungi or animal sources, have also yielded valuable medicines for man.
Pharmacology can be studied as a 3 or 4 year degree programme with module choices that can lead to either Single Honours Pharmacology or Joint Honours Pharmacology (with Biochemistry or Physiological Sciences). The final year is taught at premises in the University Medical School at Ninewells Hospital, and includes a 15-week research project and a choice of study units in a broad range of pharmacology topics given by expert laboratory-based scientists who work at the “cutting edge” level of research in these areas. This venue also enables some clinicians, who treat hospital patients, to be included in these final year study units to reinforce the biomedical nature of the subject.
Pharmacologists can often be found working in multi-disciplinary teams (especially in drug development by the pharmaceutical industry) containing chemists, biochemists, physiologists, molecular biologists, neuroscientists and doctors. Many research pharmacologists are interested in the mechanisms underlying normal functioning of certain organs whilst others are interested in disease states and designing drugs to treat or cure disease. Some pharmacologists study the potential harmful side effects of drugs (toxicology) and how drugs are broken down and
eliminated by the body (pharmacokinetics). It should be noted that having a pharmacology degree does not provide the qualification to practise pharmacy in the UK. However, it can be helpful for later gaining entry to study Medicine.
Pharmacologists are employed in a wide range of positions: