Study Chemistry and Medicine

Next time you are feeling unwell and in need perhaps of a painkiller, an indigestion tablet or a spoonful of cough mixture, it is worth thinking about whether you would enjoy the excitement and challenge of making new medicines.

Study Chemistry and Medicine

Every medicine we use is the end result of a long process of research and development, typically over a period of at least 12 years, by a team of talented scientists in the pharmaceutical industry. One key player in this team, who has the challenge of turning good ideas into effective medicines, is the medicinal chemist.

Medicinal chemistry involves the identification, preparation, design and development of new chemical compounds for therapeutic use. A medicinal chemist synthesises different compounds in the laboratory and works with biologists, toxicologists and pharmacologists to try and maximise the desired medicinal effects. Each of these compounds has the potential to become a blockbuster medicine that can improve the quality of life for thousands of people.

To be a successful medicinal chemist requires creativity; a drive to succeed; expertise in organic and analytical chemistry (including excellent practical skills); good interpersonal skills; and the ability to work effectively as part of a team alongside scientists from other disciplines. You will also need to have the flexibility to work in a dynamic environment because the projects that you work on will change as ideas for new medicines are developed.

There is a wide array of career opportunities for a medicinal chemist in academia, government institutions and industry. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the UKs most successful industries and a major employer. Industry provides the opportunity to stay in the laboratory environment or to move into management. Generally, pharmaceutical companies require people with research experience and you can place yourself in a very competitive position by ensuring you have as much chemical experience as possible, particularly with a strong background in medicinal chemistry.

Where can I study?
A number of UK universities offer undergraduate chemistry degree courses that allow students to specialise in medicinal chemistry. A wide range of 3-Year BSc or 4-Year MChem or MSci programmes are available, including courses at University CollegeLondon (the first university to offer such a programme), the University of Reading, Keele University and the University of York. For students who do not have the necessary qualifications for direct entry into a BSc or MChem programme, Keele offers a medicinal chemistry course that incorporates a science foundation year.

Students on such courses take specialist modules in medicinal chemistry. At York, BSc or MChem students can choose from a range of optional modules – they can learn about the chemistry of biological systems, the molecular basis of disease and how to design medicines to combat illness, including the use of molecular modelling (the department maintains one of the best-equipped suites of molecular graphics and computing facilities in Europe). Students do not choose their optional modules for a given year until the end of the previous year, so they are able to follow their interests as they develop through the course. Throughout the 3- or 4-year programmes, students also do a range of exercises, some developed in collaboration with industry, which are designed to improve teamworking, communication and presentation skills.

In the final year of an MChem or MSci degree, students carry out a research project. This is an opportunity to do a piece of original work in a particular area of chemistry, such as medicinal chemistry. Typically, you will get the opportunity to work alongside students studying towards a PhD degree in a university research laboratory. A student at York is free to choose a research project with one of a number of groups at York who specialise in the design and synthesis of new medicines. Alternatively, students can choose to do a medicinal chemistry project at a university in Europe (Finland, France, Germany, Italy or Spain) or Singapore.

Some MChem or MSci degree programmes offer students the opportunity to do a research project in an industrial environment. As at Reading, this usually takes place in the third year. However, at York, MChem students carry out their research project in Industry in Year 4. Companies seem to appreciate the extra maturity and the enhanced background in chemistry shown by Year 4 students. Some 50 companies, including all the large pharmaceutical companies in the UK, plus a number in Europe, support this popular scheme. The student undertakes a leadingedge research project in their chosen host company, over a period of 12 months, with the added bonus that the company pays them a salary. Inevitably, some companies offer permanent employment to graduates whom have impressed them during their fourth-year industrial placement.

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