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Pharmacology: The Journey of a Chemical Compound into a Drug
Nov 1, 2020

Most of us have taken, or at least interacted with, medicine at some point or another in our lives. This can range from more “simple” over-the-counter drugs to more complex medicines specifically designed for exact illnesses. Considering the Covid-19 era we are going through and as search for a vaccine is at the highest possible speed, it is important to have at least a general idea on how medicines are developed for our use. This article aims to explore how a complicated mix of chemical compounds in a laboratory end up as pills on a shelf in your local pharmacy. We will also explore a brief history of pharmacology, where drugs get their names, how drugs come into fruition, the various affects that drugs can have on our bodies, along with the discrepancies that exist between them in regard to when, how, and why they should be taken.

Pharmacology is the study of the interactions that occur between a living organism and the chemicals that affect normal or abnormal biochemical functions. It includes the study of how a drugs can affect our biological systems, such as individual organs or an entire part of the body, and how the body overall responds to the drug. The discipline encompasses the sources, chemical properties, biological effects and, therapeutic uses of drugs. Substances with medicinal properties are considered pharmaceuticals, whereas drugs given for therapeutic purposes are usually called medications. Drug therapy, which is also called pharmacotherapy, is the use of drugs to prevent, diagnose, and treat signs, symptoms, and disease processes. When prevention or cure is not a reasonable goal, relief of symptoms can greatly improve quality of life and the ability to function properly on a day-to-day basis. Developing an understanding of this craft can allow us to better appreciate how molecules interact to form the drugs and medicines that can change our lives, and perhaps even allow us to contemplate their complex creation and existence.

In its most simplistic definition, a medication is a substance that is ingested or placed onto the body in order to cure a disease or condition (antibiotics are given to cure an infection), treat a medical condition (anti-depressants are given to treat depression), relieve symptoms of an illness (pain relievers are given to reduce pain), given to prevent diseases (flu vaccine helps to prevent the person from complications of having the flu).

Source of drugs

Historically, drugs were mainly derived from plants, animals, and minerals. Morphine, insulin, and iron are all commonly used examples of their respective sources. Belief in the curative powers of plants and certain substances rested exclusively upon traditional knowledge. But empirical information was not subjected to critical examination. Until the end of the 19th century, medicines were made by natural organic or inorganic products including mostly dried or fresh plants and their parts. These compounds might contain substances that possess healing properties or reactions that exert a toxic effect. It is important to remember that many fruits, vegetables, and plants still possess great power despite not having a “modern” origin.

Most drugs used nowadays are synthetic chemical compounds manufactured in laboratories which are synthesized by altering the chemical structure of an existing drug. The first drug of a particular group of drugs are called prototypes. For example, morphine is the prototype of opioid analgesics, and penicillin is the prototype of antibacterial drugs. Drug classifications and prototypes are defined and most new drugs can be assigned to a group. We must be hopeful and continue to search far and wide for cures for all  diseases, whether they be organic or synthetic, since our world is full of an infinite amount of possibilities and discoveries.

Drug names

The systematic naming of pharmaceutical drugs is called “drug nomenclature.” Drugs primarily have three types of names: chemical names, generic names, and trade names. The chemical names are the scientific names that often sound complex and are based upon the molecular structure of a drug. During development, the company will apply for regulatory approval of the drug by the relevant national regulatory agency, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and will be granted a generic name for it. Generic names usually indicate, via their stems, what drug class the drug belongs to. For example, oseltamivir is an antiviral drug because its name ends in the -vir suffix.

After development, testing, and regulatory acceptance of a drug, the pharmaceutical company gives the drug a trade name, which is a standard term in the pharmaceutical industry for a brand name or trademark name. Many drugs have multiple trade names which can reflect separate marketing strategies in different countries, manufactured by different companies, or both.

Drug investigation

A new drug investigation is the beginning of the journey of a chemical compound to a drug that will be used in clinics. The testing process of a chemical compound begins with animal studies to determine potential beneficial uses and also potential toxic side effects of the candidate compound.  The results from these animal studies are reviewed, and if the results are satisfactory, the compound then undergoes clinical trials in humans that people can voluntarily sign up for. Most clinical trials use a randomized, controlled experimental design that involves selection of subjects according to established criteria, random assignment of subjects to experimental groups, and administration of the test drug to one group and a control substance to another group.

Patent protection

New drugs that are developed by pharmaceutical companies will be covered under patent protection. This means that only the pharmaceutical company that holds the patent is allowed to manufacture, market, and eventually profit from the drug. This is seen as a return on the company’s investment that it took to develop the drug, which may require years of work and millions of dollars, along with an incentive for developing other drugs. Other pharmaceutical companies cannot manufacture and market the drug during the patent period.

Usually, the drug patent is awarded for around twenty years in the United States, however the number of years varies across countries and drugs. Pharmaceutical companies apply for a patent long before the clinical trial period even begins. The effective patent period after the drug has finally received approval is often around seven to twelve years. After the patented period expires the drug can be manufactured and sold by other companies. The drug is referred to as a generic drug at this point, and they are required to be therapeutically equivalent and much less expensive than trade name drugs.


Pharmacoeconomics involves all of the costs that are accrued due to drug therapy and experimentation including those related to purchasing supplies, dispensing the drug, storing it, administrative fees, laboratory and other tests that are used to monitor patient responses, and losses from expiration. The length of a patient’s illness or hospitalization is also considered. While the most important factor is the health of the patient the costs for treatment are increasingly being considered as a major factor when choosing medications, and research projects that compare costs have greatly increased in recent years. The goal is to make it easier for patients to choose the most cost-effective drugs that combine high quality treatment at an affordable price. For drugs or regimens of similar efficacy and toxicity, there is considerable pressure upon doctors and pharmacies to prescribe less costly drugs for shorter duration.

Prescription and non-prescription drugs

In many countries, consumers have two legal routes of access to therapeutic drugs. One route involves a prescription or order from a licensed health care provider, such as a physician, dentist, or nurse practitioner. The other route is by over-the-counter (OTC) purchase of drugs that do not require a prescription. Both of these routes are regulated by various drug laws that change from country to country. Acquiring and using prescription drugs for non-therapeutic purposes, by persons who are not authorized to have the drugs or for whom they are not prescribed, is illegal.

The rejection of drugs in modern society

Nowadays, there are some people who deny various kinds of treatments because of their religious beliefs. This category of people is only a minority, as the majority of religions advocate for people to be healthy and to take care of their health as much as they can. In almost all belief traditions, the human body is believed to be a trust, and in case of any disease, the most appropriate and fastest treatment methods should be used. Even substances that are not normally permitted are allowed by scholars to be used if the person’s safety is concerned. For believers, the most important goal in life is to worship God, and for this to be possible the body must be healthy.

One day, people asked Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him:

“Should we make use of medical treatment?”

He replied: “Make use of medical treatment, for God has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease, namely old age.”

People are encouraged to seek out those remedies and to use them with skill and kindness. Let us also remember that Jesus, peace be upon him, too, was very active in his ministry of healing. He showed by God’s permission miracles like curing the blind and the deaf, and bringing the dead back to life. Thus, religions do not refuse treatment with any available methods, and they even strongly encourage treatment and prevention of diseases.

Religions are also well known to treat stress, which wreaks havoc on the mind and body. It is still not known exactly how stress harms our health, but researchers have found that chronic psychological stress is associated with body’s losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. It has been shown that the effects of psychological stress on the body's ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease. We know that religions and beliefs give people hope and significantly decrease the stress.

Human beings are the most precious creation, and health is necessary for us to achieve the purpose of our existence. Using scientific medicine together with faith and religion can help people to protect their health. Being the science of drugs and by investigating new drug therapies, pharmacology helps us exactly with that.

History of Pharmacology

Claudius Galen (129–200 A.D.) was the first person who attempted to consider the theoretical background of pharmacology.

Ali al-Tabari (838 A.D.) Medieval Islamic physicians used natural substances such as Papaver somniferum Linnaeus, poppy, and Cannabis sativa Linnaeus, hemp as a source of medicinal drugs. Although poppy had medicinal benefits, Ali al-Tabari explained that the extract of poppy leaves was lethal, and the extracts and opium should be considered poisons (4).

Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541), also known as “Paracelsus”, began to question doctrines from antiquity. He prescribed chemically defined substances with such success that professional enemies had him prosecuted as a poisoner. Against such accusations, he defended himself with the thesis that has become an axiom of pharmacology:

“If you want to explain any poison properly, what then isn‘t a poison? All things are poison, nothing is without poison; the dose alone causes a thing not to be poison.”

Johann Jakob Wepfer (1620–1695) was the first to use animal experimentation for pharmacological or toxicological actions.

Rudolf Buchheim (1820–1879) founded the first institute of pharmacology at the University of Dorpat (Tartu, Estonia) in 1847, which firstly made pharmacology as an independent scientific discipline. In addition to a description of effects, he strove to explain the chemical properties of drugs.

Oswald Schmiedeberg (1838–1921), together with his many disciples, helped to establish the high  reputation of pharmacology. He partnered with pathologist Bernhard Naunyn (1839–1925) to found the first journal of pharmacology, which has since been published without interruption.

After 1920, the pharmacological industry had their own pharmacology laboratories outside established university institutes. After 1960, departments of clinical pharmacology were set up at many universities and in industry.


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