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Real World

The Theme of Medicine in Chemistry Basics

It turns out that chemistry is at the heart of medicine. Not only do all physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and anyone with any medically related title have to pass college-level chemistry, they have to have an understanding of it. Everything that occurs in our bodies is chemistry. That punched in the gut feeling you get right before a pop quiz is a result of chemical reactions taking place in your body. As is that jittery feeling you get when that good-looking guy or gal pulls up a chair next to you in class...we'll stop there, but you get the idea.

Drugs, both illegal and legal, work by interacting with chemicals in human cells. All drugs are chemical compounds. When they are ingested, or injected, the drugs make their way to their chemical destination. Some pass the great blood-brain barrier and affect the cells in the brain. For example, many illegal drugs interact with neurons. Did we say neurons? Yes, that's right. Medicine is the intersection of chemistry and biology.

Medical researchers who are tackling diseases such as cancer and AIDS are constantly searching for new chemical compounds that will react in desirable ways in the body. That is, they are looking for compounds that will react only when and where the researchers want them to react, lessening the ill side effects of the prescribed drug. Let's think about a hypothetical case for a second.

Say that medical researchers discover a chemical compound is toxic to cancer cells. This particular compound destroys those bad boys like nobody's business. Mission accomplished? Not quite. Chemists may need to tweak the molecule using their mad organic chemistry synthesis skills so that they optimize all the desired properties of the compound. When we say desired properties, we aren't talking about whether the compound smells good or tastes good; we are talking about interactions in the body.

The compound may kill cancer cells like nobody's business, but no one is going to want to take the drug if it also happens to kill neurons, for example. Chemists and biologists often work alongside in medical research settings to develop chemical compounds that are both effective at their job and safe for patients.

Have questions about how certain cancer-fighting drugs work? Check out this resource from the American Cancer Society to learn more about specific drugs that are currently in use.

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