What do pharmacologists do?

Pharmacologists are involved in drug development and evaluation. Once drugs have been developed, pharmacologists study their properties and actions, including possible side-effects and complications, so that they may be used with the greatest effectiveness and safety. Pharmacological experimentation may include:

  • evaluation of chemicals for particular activities which could render them useful in the treatment of disease;
  • modifying the chemical structure of a substance of known effectiveness (to eliminate undesirable side- effects, to achieve greater specificity or to improve pharmacokinetic properties);
  • studying drug targets (e.g., receptors and transporters) and how they may be altered in disease states;
  • studying what happens to a drug after it has been administered;
  • safety studies - checking drugs for unwanted and dangerous side-effects and establishing reasons for these;
  • the study of other substances which affect living systems, e.g. pollutants, poisons, insecticides.

Experimental pharmacologists do laboratory work, such as structure-activity studies on a range of related drugs, in order to understand the molecular mechanisms of drug action. They may also be concerned with drug design and development. Experimental pharmacology involves a great deal of careful laboratory work, often performed in teams or groups. In the experimental context the word "drug" includes not only actual or potentially useful therapeutic substances, but also a wide range of other biologically active substances that alter the functions of living systems. Experimental pharmacologists usually have degrees in science, medical science, pharmacy or veterinary science with specialised interests in the chemical, biochemical, molecular or physiological aspects of pharmacology. They may collaborate with clinical pharmacologists, but do not prescribe drugs or take care of patients.

Clinical pharmacologists, who are qualified medical practitioners specialising in this aspect of medicine, study the use and effects of drugs after they have been administered for the treatment of disease. They aim to match a correct diagnosis of a disease with appropriate drug therapy. Clinical pharmacologists are also responsible for closely-supervised trials of drugs in their final stages, using selected volunteers or patients.

Pharmacologists may also specialise in toxicology, the study of the toxic effects of drugs, chemicals and pollutants on man.

Pharmacology graduates may work in a variety of areas in Australia and internationally: teaching and research in tertiary institutions; in the pharmaceutical industry; in hospitals (clinical teaching and research), CSIRO and in government departments. Pharmacologists are also employed in industry as regulatory affairs officers who coordinate and collate information about new drugs for submissions to the government for clinical trials and marketing approval. Government employed pharmacologists evaluate these applications. Clinical research associates work with doctors in the design, execution and documentation of clinical trials. Pharmacologists may also be employed in financial, medico-legal and patenting organizations using their expert knowledge of pharmacology.