Throughout the research and development process, chemists work with scientists from many other disciplines. They pool their collective knowledge of the disease they are working on to discover a new treatment for it.
In the early stages of discovery, they work hard to find a ‘hit’ molecule. These are chemical compounds that, when tested, are found to affect a molecular ‘target’ in the body and therefore may result in a treatment for a disease.
How do they find ‘hit’ molecules? Some chemists use cutting edge computer software to design virtual molecules that might interact with the molecular ‘targets’. Other potential molecules may come from immense libraries of chemical compounds that companies hold, or researchers may design molecules based upon pharmacophore analysis (analysis of the structural features of a molecule responsible for its biological activity) of existing medicines.
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Each of these promising ‘hit’ molecules will be followed up by making and testing similar molecules called ‘leads’. Following tests on these ‘lead’ compounds, chemists, working in synthetic organic and medicinal chemistry, will optimise the ‘lead’ by making small changes to the molecule so that is has the most beneficial level of activity in the body (which will treat the disease successfully), but without dangerous side effects.
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Development chemists, sometimes called process chemists, will take a selected molecule that looks the most promising treatment for a disease as a drug candidate, and will develop a synthetic route to produce the compound efficiently in large-scale quantities.
Analytical chemists confirm the structure of the compounds made and check the purity of the samples made by the development chemists. They specify the impurity limits for the active ingredient (the actual chemical compound that will treat the disease) and so control the quality of the final product.
Physical chemists investigate the physical properties of the compound to enhance its effectiveness as a medicine. They work across all aspects of the drug discovery and development process, for example in drug discovery physical chemists help to optimise leads by identifying the quantitative relationship between the chemical structure of a lead and its biological activity.
Pharmaceutical chemists are involved in the designing and optimising of a medicines’ formulation (that is how it is made up, for example, in tablet, ointment or inhalation form).
As you can see, there are a multitude of specialisms within the chemistry field; each with its own critical role in the development of a new medicine. If you would like to know more about the work of a chemist, visit the Case studies section of the website for a selection of interviews with young scientists.
Studying biology as well? Find out why biology is important to the pharmaceutical industry in Studying biology?
A research chemist needs to have excellent laboratory skills, an in-depth knowledge and understanding of organic chemistry, and a love for science.