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Has the potential to cause harm.


Protein molecules attached to cells that only bind to specific molecules with a particular structure


Reusable protein molecules which act as biological catalysts, changing the rate of chemical reactions in the body without being affected themselves

Synthetic chemistry laboratory tour

Take a virtual tour of a synthetic chemistry laboratory

The role of the medicinal chemists working in most of the synthetic chemistry labs is to convert "leads", which are discovered in the early research phase, into "potential drugs" which can be developed into medicines to be taken by patients. A "lead" is a compound which has biological activity on an enzyme or receptor in a test tube or plastic multi-well plate. Medicinal chemists make related compounds that work at lower doses and that also work in whole mammals for a reasonable length of time with no harmful side effects. Chemists work in project teams focussed on a particular disease.

All practical chemistry is carried out in fume cupboards. No chemistry is done in the open lab. This is a basic health and safety requirement to protect all chemists in the lab from hazardous chemicals and from solvent vapours. Most of the solvents that are used are flammable and therefore naked flames are banned. There are no Bunsen burners in pharmaceutical company labs! Electricity is used to heat chemical reactions using either hotplates for small reactions or mantles for larger flasks.

It is very satisfying to make new chemicals that will work at very low concentrations at biological receptors or enzymes. It is an even greater challenge to design something which will be absorbed from the stomach or intestines after taking a tablet by mouth. The new compound normally needs to be long acting and not rapidly broken down by our livers. It also has to be safe and have no harmful side effects. Some of this design is done by simply drawing chemical structures on paper; but often computer modelling is used.

In the laboratories and the adjoining corridor there are a number of signs that remind people what is required for safe working in the area.