Medicinal chemistry is a young discipline which emerged from organic chemistry during the years after World War II. Originally - not surprisingly - many chemists considered the new field as a special branch of organic chemistry and not seldom as a poor kind of organic chemistry. The medicinal chemists were blamed just to synthesize compounds more or less at random, not being interested in the basics of organic chemistry; obviously it was forgotten that the new field had its own basics, i.e. the biological activity of (organic) molecules making them attractive as active principle of medicines.
A major feature of medicinal chemistry is its interdisciplinary nature; Alfred Burger called it in his well-known books as being interdependent, but independent. Besides organic chemistry a number of other disciplines contribute to medicinal chemistry: biochemistry, pharmacology, molecular biology, medical sciences, analytical chemistry, computational sciences,……. It is the integration of the contributing sciences which constitutes medicinal chemistry, making it a unique discipline.
Several definitions have been given for the field; all paying full attention to the interdisciplinarity. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has concluded the following definition: medicinal chemistry is a chemistry-based discipline, also involving aspects of biological, medical and pharmaceutical sciences. It is concerned with the invention, discovery, design, identification, and preparation of biologically active compounds, the study of their metabolism, the interpretation of their mode of action at the molecular level and the construction of structure-activity relationships.
The young discipline developed rapidly and became a major contributor to the art of drug discovery. In finding its independent place in the hall of science it encountered two major problems. The first is that the discipline did not get the same name in all countries or languages. It is also known as Chimie Therapeutique, or Pharmacochemistry; more disturbing is that in many countries the field is referred to as pharmaceutical chemistry. Pharmaceutical chemistry, however, is a much older pharmaceutical discipline, which focuses on the chemistry of finished medicines (especially analytical chemistry). In fact the Div. Med. Chem. of the American Chem. Soc. is the successor of the ACS “Div. of Chemistry of Medicinal Products”, which on its turn emerged from the “Div. of Pharmaceutical Chemistry”. It is highly recommendable to use internationally one name - in translation where needed - for the discipline!
The other problem concerns the place of medicinal chemistry in academic curricula. It seemed that each university decided in an opportunistic way where to introduce the new field. In several universities it received a place in the Faculty of Pharmacy, but in many others it was ranked under chemistry, sometimes under the chair of organic chemistry, sometimes as an independent department; even within one country one can still find, from university to university, medicinal chemistry in different faculties.
One might say that the two “problems” are of minor importance or meaning. The contribution to the advancement of science, to the development of better medicines, to the improvement of health care, is what should count. The point is, however, whether these “objectives” can be achieved in a most optimal manner when the observed problems have not been removed! Two recent observations make clear that medicinal chemistry still suffers from both problems,
- Within the European Union the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) aims at strengthening of the position of the European pharmaceutical industries. Major financial means will be made available to promote the process of the development of new medicines; better, safer, faster are the words used to illustrate the objectives of IMI; industries and academia both should contribute to achieve the results wanted. It is extremely remarkable that in all IMI related documents medicinal chemistry is not even mentioned as a main contributor to the design and development of new medicines. It seems that several non-medicinal chemists still do not recognize or acknowledge medicinal chemistry as an independent discipline. This is bad, not only for the discipline and its professionals, but especially for the whole process: medicinal chemistry plays a crucial role in the development of new medicines.
- Recently the EFMC committee on Training and Teaching Medicinal Chemistry aimed at providing an inventory of all programmes available at European universities towards degrees in Medicinal Chemistry: bachelor-, master-, and Ph.D-programmes. An inquiry form was sent to all national representatives of the EFMC council. In a numerical sense the response was not bad; about 75 % council member’s sent the filled in forms back. The information received, however, showed an enormous diversity. Where information on medicinal chemistry had been asked, it became cleat that in a large number of countries the term Medicinal Chemistry is not even used; it is still the old and not appropriate name Pharmaceutical Chemistry which is applied, as well as Chimie Therapeutique or Pharmacochemistry. Only in a limited number of universities degrees in medicinal chemistry can be obtained. It should not surprise that when even professionals have not succeeded to guarantee an appropriate name and uniform place in academia for their own discipline, this discipline will not receive the full attention of non-specialists, such as the case for the members of the committee that is responsible for the implementation of IMI.
What could be done to improve the situation, to get the full recognition for the merits of medicinal chemistry as a major contributor in drug development, to assure that medicinal chemistry and medicinal chemists can contribute to reaching the goals of the IMI programme? A first step - and each journey, also long journeys start with a first step as we all know - is an initiative in each country, by medicinal chemists, to assure that one and the same definition of the discipline is used, introduced by the same name - medicinal chemistry - or a proper translation thereof. When it is really wanted to improve on the situation and to promote the discipline, each national organization on medicinal chemistry, or in certain countries individual medicinal chemists, should raise their voice. Subsequently it is needed to find an appropriate place for the discipline in the curricula and to install the possibility to obtain degrees in the discipline, just as one can become an organic chemist, an analytical chemist, a biochemist or a pharmacologist.
It is a task for the EFMC and all its adhering organizations to take action along the lines described in the preceding paragraphs, not especially for the medicinal chemists, but first of all to guarantee that “society” can benefit optimally from the important contributions the discipline has to make to the process of the design, synthesis and development of better and safer medicines.
By Henk Timmerman