What is pharmacology?
Pharmacology is the branch of science concerned with the study of drugs and how they affect living organisms. When most people think about the word “drug”, they usually associate it with illegal substances, such as cannabis, heroin or cocaine. But in pharmacology, the word “drug” has a much broader meaning than that; any compound that can modify the biological function of living organisms can be considered a drug. This definition includes not only medicines that have beneficial effects in the treatment of various disorders, but also common everyday chemicals such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, illegal substances of abuse, and a variety of man-made or natural environmental toxins. Pharmacologists study the actions of all these substances.
The word “pharmacology” itself comes from the Greek word for drug, “pharmakon”. Pharmacology not only encompasses the discovery of drugs, but also the investigation of their chemical properties, mechanisms of action, uses and biological effects. Within the discipline of pharmacology, there is scope for studying many different aspects of how chemical agents act on the body, and vice versa. For example, molecular pharmacology involves the study of drug action at the molecular or cellular level. Systems pharmacology focuses on agents affecting specific physiological systems, such as the nervous system (neuropharmacology) or the cardiovascular system (cardiovascular pharmacology). Behavioural pharmacology investigates how drugs affect behaviour. Clinical pharmacology is another aspect of pharmacology that focuses on the study of drugs in humans.
What is toxicology?
The related science of toxicology involves the study of the nature and mechanisms of deleterious effects of chemicals on humans, animals and other biological systems. The study of toxicology as a distinct, yet related, discipline to pharmacology highlights the focus of toxicologists in formulating measures aimed at protecting public health against hazards associated with toxic substances in food, air and water, as well as risks that may be associated with drugs.
What courses can I do?
There are many degree courses in which pharmacology and/or toxicology are taught, including Science, Medical Science, Pharmacy, Medicine, Veterinary Science and Dentistry. Students in Science and Medical Science courses can elect to study these subjects as majors. In the other degree courses, they are sometimes taught as compulsory components. There are a number of Departments of Pharmacology or Toxicology ( which may sometimes be combined with other Departments) in Australia and New Zealand. As part of its commitment to assist academic departments in developing pharmacology curricula for different degree courses, ASCEPT has also been working towards developing core curricula that can be used as a guide by Departments when designing their own curricula.
Careers in pharmacology and toxicology
Graduates of pharmacology and toxicology enjoy a range of career options. You can be employed as a scientist in research programs in Universities and Research Institutes, and/or take a teaching position in a tertiary institution. You can find employment in a hospital setting, for example, as a clinical pharmacologist involved in clinical trials, or you can work for various government bodies that are responsible for the regulation of therapeutic goods and other chemical and biological agents. Many graduates find work in the pharmaceutical industry, where they are involved in basic research, drug development or sales and marketing. Some graduates also branch out into the areas of medical information and publishing of scientific journals and books.
Because drugs and other biologically active chemicals have had, and will continue to have, a profound impact on the quality of life of the population, there will always be a demand for pharmacologists and toxicologists. Exciting developments related to the sequencing of the human genome have highlighted the vast number of potential new drug targets that can be exploited for the alleviation of various diseases. In addition, there is always room for improvement of existing drug therapies.