Medicinal Chemistry: Definition & Research

Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Have you ever wondered who creates many of the drugs that we see on our store shelves? Continue reading to learn about the field of medicinal chemistry. Discover what a medicinal chemist does and examples of the research projects they conduct.

What is Medicinal Chemistry?

Imagine you have a very bad sinus headache; your nose is stuffy, and all you want to do is sleep. You find a wide variety of sinus medications to choose from at the drugstore, but who is responsible for working behind the scenes to create these drugs?

A medicinal chemist is a trained chemist who focuses on drug discovery and development. They make or synthesize new drugs as well as improve the method used to create existing drugs. Think of a medicinal chemist as a person who loves both biology and chemistry, and uses them to help treat diseases and health-related issues.

They may also be interested in learning about the medicinal properties of natural substances, such as plants. When developing drugs, they may work to discover and isolate medicinal agents that are found in plants. For example, medicinal chemists have researched the properties in thyme leaves used to reduce heart rate and lower blood pressure.

Thyme leaves

A Day In The Life of a Medicinal Chemist: What Do They Do?

So, what is a typical day like for a medicinal chemist? Well, this really depends on the type of job being completed. Most medicinal chemists work in a laboratory, but the lab environments can vary widely and depend on the types of analytical equipment needed to separate and identify compounds.

A cornerstone of medicinal chemistry is collaboration with scientists in other disciplines. For example, after purifying a drug, a medicinal chemist may send their drug sample(s) to a biologist to see how well it performs in the body. Remember that biologists and chemists work very closely together in the field of medicinal chemistry.

Medicinal Chemistry Research: An Overview

Research is a very specific process used to study and learn about substances. Usually conducted in the form of a project, there are several research topics conducted by medicinal chemists. Let's take a look at two broad types of research that utilize medicinal chemistry applications.

Plant chemistry

Plants can play a very important role during the drug discovery and development phase of medicinal chemistry. Plants have been used as medicinal agents for a wide variety of purposes, such as an herbal remedy for colds or illnesses. In medicinal chemistry, researchers work to determine how certain properties of a plant can be used as a medicinal agent to improve general health and well-being.

Understanding the positive medicinal impact of plants on human health has had a tremendous influence on drug discovery. For example, opium, the natural chemical found in the poppy seed plant, has been used since ancient times. At the turn of the 19th century, medicinal chemists discovered that morphine could be isolated from this plant-based agent to more effectively treat people's nasty aches and pains.


Another example that highlights the importance of plant-based medicinal chemistry is the research work on milk thistle. This herb has been used as a remedy for many years to heal ailments commonly associated with the liver, kidney and gallbladder. Research has shown that milk thistle contains a certain agent called a flavonoid. Flavonoids are a type of chemical released from plants. Medicinal chemistry-based research has identified that flavonoids may contribute to the powerful medicinal use of milk thistle in treating liver damage.

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