What is pharmacology?

Pharmacology is the science of drugs and their effect on living systems. You can find pharmacology everywhere, when you visit the dentist and when you take any type of medicine. Pharmacology is responsible for painkillers, caffeine drinks and antibiotics. Without pharmacologists we wouldn’t be able to:

  • discover new medicines to help fight diseases
  • improve their effectiveness and reduce unwanted side effects 
  • understand why people have different responses to medicines, and why some work better for some people than others
  • understand why some drugs cause addiction

What do pharmacologists do?

Pharmacologists are scientists who study how new medicines work. This is different to a pharmacist, who is a licensed health professional who prepares, dispenses and advises about medicines that are already available.

An example: Tamoxifen

Tamoxifen is a highly successful drug that has played a huge part in improving survival for breast cancer; survival from the disease has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK. But it almost didn’t happen. 

Tamoxifen was originally being studied as an emergency contraceptive and when that didn’t work out, it was shelved. Then, pharmacologist Professor V. Craig Jordan had the idea that its oestrogen blocking effects might be beneficial in breast cancer. It was his studies of the action of tamoxifen on oestrogen receptors in breast tissue that led to the development of tamoxifen as one of today’s top cancer drugs. Without pharmacology, this drug could have stayed on the shelf.

What skills will I need to be a pharmacologist?

Pharmacology brings together chemistry, physiology (the study of the body) and pathology (the study of disease). Pharmacologists work closely with scientists in other subjects such as neuroscience, molecular and cell biology, immunology and cancer biology. Although many pharmacology jobs require an undergraduate degree, there are pharmacology roles that do not require a degree.