A key area within biology is pharmacology. Pharmacologists investigate how potential medicines interact with biological systems.

Pharmacologists use cells, animal tissues and whole animals to predict what effects a potential medicine might have in humans. Compounds that have been selected to have the best chance of becoming a successful medicine will be tested in vitro (which may involve living cells or tissues cultured in the laboratory) and in vivo (tests using live animals) to find the most promising one to take forward for further development.

Clinical pharmacologists carry out work involving the analysis of the effects of medicines on people within clinical trial studies.

In vitro research

Within in vitro research, pharmacologists will work on trying to find out what biological activity new compounds have on isolated cells, enzymes or tissues outside of living organisms, for example within a test tube. The data resulting from such tests are analysed to develop an understanding of how compounds that have the potential to become medicines act at both the cellular and molecular level. These results will shed light on the how the compound under investigation affects the mechanism of disease within the human body. However this may not necessarily correspond to how a compound would act in a living organism, therefore any compounds that have a high potential to become a life saving medicine must also be tested in vivo.

In vivo research

The aim of both in vivo and in vitro research is to understand how potential medicines can be used effectively and safely. In vivo pharmacologists will investigate how effective a compound is in living biological systems (pharmacodynamic effects) and  establish whether a new compound could produce side effects (safety pharmacology). Of particular importance in drug safety are effects on the cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems.

The animals used for in vivo research are cared for by specialist animal technicians and vets. All work involving animals is strictly regulated through the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in the UK. The law ensures that the animal houses, laboratories and animal care procedures meet very high standards.

Every research project has to be approved before it can start and the likely benefits are considered against any possible distress caused to the animals. Scientists who carry out experiments involving animals also have to hold a Personal License which is only given to people who have the necessary education and training to perform that type of experiment. There are inspections held regularly both in-house and un-announced by independent government inspectors.

Further areas of specialism

Further areas of specialism within pharmacology include clinical pharmacology (as mentioned earlier) and neuropharmacology (where scientists study the effect of chemicals on the nervous system). Related occupations include toxicology, biochemistry and drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics (DPMK). As with much research, the role involves a high level of collaboration with other scientists.

Last modified: 20 October 2023

Last reviewed: 20 October 2023