How The Concepts Taught In Undergraduate Chemistry Are Related To The Practice Of Pharmacy And The Pharmaceutical Industry

How The Concepts Taught In Undergraduate Chemistry Are Related To The Practice Of Pharmacy And The Pharmaceutical Industry

Holley Burns
Interview with Associate Professor, Ron Hills, PhD

1. How would you describe the connection between organic chemistry and pharmacy broadly? How would you emphasize this linkage to other students?

Organic chemistry serves as a foundation for how molecular chemicals react and/or are combined into biochemical building blocks. Each drug compound has unique chemical properties that can affect the body’s underlying biochemistry in different ways. The chemistry of life is sufficiently complex that it takes years to learn, and we are learning more from research every day.

2. How can knowledge of organic chemistry concepts, such as chemical structure, functional groups, reactions, etc. – adhere to the study of pharmacy including drug discovery and development?

A pharmacist is the medication expert in the health care team. They are responsible for understanding all classes of medications and their pharmacological effects. Meds within each drug class share a common core structure or “pharmacophore”. Different drugs within a class can be decorated with different functional groups, and the resulting new potential reactions in the body can cause differential side effects or interactions with other drugs/enzymes.

There are many career roles a pharmacist can pursue ranging from community practice, hospital (clinical) pharmacy, nuclear pharmacy, or big pharma (medical liaison, product labeling, regulatory affairs, etc.). Having a molecular level understanding of science and/or research experience better prepares you to keep abreast of new drugs to market and to work within the rapid pace scientific environment of a pharmaceutical company.

3. Could you give concrete instances of how organic chemistry ideas are used in pharmacy practice in areas like drug interaction, drug metabolism, compounding, etc.? And how these applications are taught in pharmacy school?

For patients that have experienced an antimicrobial sulfonamide allergy, this was initially thought due be solely do to the sulfur group (sulfa allergy). Clinicians now know they can still safely administer a cheap thiazide diuretic (which contain a sulfonamide) to these patients. This is because it is not the sulfonamide itself that causes hypersensitivity but hydroxylation by liver enzymes of the aromatic amine next to the sulfonamide in the sulfa antibiotic, which is not present in blood pressure medications.

A somewhat analogous scenario resulted when a large number of patients had a side effect from taking penicillin and subsequently reported that as a “penicillin allergy”. In actuality true IgE-mediated drug allergies to penicillin are quite rare. One of our PharmD alums, and a former researcher in my lab who has gone on to pursue a career in research, published a nice communication on this. The chemistry contributing to cross-reactivity among antibiotic allergies has to do with the structure of the sidechains decorating the core beta-lactam pharmacophore. Overall, Cody’s taking the initiative to write the article was a great example of the role of the pharmacist in health care advocacy..

For students pursuing a career in pharmacy practice, teaching the scientific foundations in pharmacology and medicinal chemistry allows us to dissect these molecular reactions that give rise to adverse side effects or drug-drug interactions (when one medication affects your response to another prescription you are taking). Pharmacists are the expert in drug interactions and are the one member of the health care team that can examine all the meds (and supplements or illicit substances) a patient is taking and how they might affect each other in an individual depending on their age, genetics, health status, etc.

4. What laboratory exercises or hands-on-training in organic chemistry topics are covered in the pharmacy school curriculum to aid students in gaining practical knowledge and applying organic chemistry concepts, such as drug analysis or compounding?

Drug analysis can include studies of solubility, formulation, molecular stability, chemical contaminants and the experimental lab techniques used to detect/separate these properties (See more on compounding in #6.)

5. Are there any opportunities for students interested in research that apply to organic chemistry? How do these research opportunities help students understand the intersection of organic chemistry and pharmacy?

UNE does have faculty members who specialize in using synthetic chemistry to make putative new therapeutic compounds, known as “medicinal chemistry”, usually specializing in one class of molecules. More broad opportunities for impactful interdisciplinary research however involve pharmaceutics (design and testing of the dosage form, molecular delivery vehicle, solubility, pharmacokinetics, etc.) and/or pharmacology (the effect of drugs on the body’s molecular response, receptor level interactions, etc.).

6. Are green chemistry approaches utilized in the field of pharmacy? And do they shape the future of drug development, discovery, and patient care?

Specialty pharmacists are certified to compound their own ointments and the like using the appropriate safe practice compounding/quality control procedures (USP standard for nonsterile preparations). Chemists with a PhD in synthetic organic or medicinal chemistry on the other hand will work in the drug discovery arm of a pharmaceutical company to explore all the combinations of functional groups that may lead to a clinically useful new compound.

Green chemistry is becoming of interest in general lab management I’d say, and is part of managing lab waste chemicals. Of course a synthetic chemist working in industrial level production or extraction has to be aware of green methods. This is true for drug discovery but also in the new field of extracting cannabinoids from cannabis to make a variety of the single component products that are now being sold.

7. Are organic chemistry methods/techniques utilized in your current research? If so, how?

As a biochemist/biophysicist broadly speaking, organic chemistry served the foundation for me to move on immediately into biochemistry. In other words, I personally have spent much time worrying about reaction mechanisms. To understand all the chemical reactions in the body, we rarely worry draw out the electron pushing (though this does inform our chemical intuition greatly). We spend most of our time learning to appreciate the vast complexity and diversity of all the molecules that comprise life and how their molecular interconversions give rise to drug metabolism, nutrient metabolism and energy homeostasis/obesity, and receptor cell signaling/pharmacology.

8. Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing a career in pharmacy?

For the practice of pharmacy, I would highly recommend shadowing a community pharmacist at your local chain or independent pharmacy, as well as a hospital pharmacist in a clinical setting; then later start to work as an intern or work toward your pharmacy technician certification. For a pharmaceutical career, I would recommend getting involved in undergraduate research and/or pursuing a summer research fellowship at UNE/IDEXX/etc, or even a distant summer internship at a big pharma company (Eli Lilly has a well-known program for pharmacists).