The drug discovery process doesn’t end when scientists create a new drug-like chemical. That chemical must then be refined and tested to determine whether it is safe, effective, and worth studying in clinical trials. These tasks fall within the scope of pharmaceutical science, a discipline that uses chemistry and biology to understand how drugs work and to invent new ones.
Here’s what you need to know about pharmaceutical science and how to begin your career in this field.
What is Pharmaceutical Science?
Pharmaceutical science focuses on the design, synthesis, targeting, distribution, safety, and efficacy of potential therapeutics.
“The role of the pharmaceutical sciences in drug discovery is one of inventing to optimize: crafting the right molecules and getting them to the right targets at the right time so they’re effective therapeutics,” says David Janero, director of Northeastern’s pharmaceutical sciences graduate programs.
This process involves rigorous testing and experiments to determine how a drug functions and ensure it does its job. Pharmaceutical scientists must also consider how the drug changes within the body and how the body handles these changes, as minimizing any negative effects of a drug is essential before it can be sold.
“All drugs have a balance between safety and efficacy, and government approval for a drug hinges on risk versus therapeutic benefit,” Janero says.
After a drug candidate’s effectiveness and safety are optimized in the laboratory, it can be submitted for clinical testing to determine how the drug affects people and diseases. The test results may indicate the need for further refinement before the drug candidate can be re-evaluated in humans and sent to a government regulatory agency, such as the FDA, for approval and eventual sale.
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Pharmaceutical Science vs. Medicinal Chemistry
Pharmaceutical science represents only one field within the area of drug discovery and development. Before drug delivery can be calibrated, the drug must first be created, which falls under the field of medicinal or pharmaceutical chemistry.
“The output of medicinal chemistry is represented by drug-like agents that can then go on for testing and profiling,” Janero says. “A person in medicinal chemistry would be interested in designing and synthesizing potential drugs.”
This hands-on field is ideal for scientists who want to be involved in a creative process at the foundational stages of drug development.
Pharmaceutical scientists, meanwhile, apply biological and medical principles to fine-tune the molecules medicinal chemists create and bring them closer to a compound that addresses a medical need.
“Pharmaceutical sciences focus on optimizing various properties of new, drug-like chemical entities so they can be effective and safe medications,” Janero says.
Both medicinal chemistry and the related pharmaceutical sciences require strong knowledge in chemistry, biology, and drug discovery in addition to good communication and collaboration skills.
When it comes to choosing a specialty, the decision can be as simple as determining whether you enjoy making molecules, Janero says, which points toward medicinal chemistry. Students who would prefer to study how those molecules can be most effectively delivered and what they do therapeutically may choose other aspects of pharmaceutical science instead.
Careers in Pharmaceutical Science
An advanced degree in pharmaceutical science opens the door to a variety of careers.
The most common career for pharmaceutical science students, according to Janero, is as a bench-level scientist at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company. These scientists are responsible for managing and completing experiments on drug-like molecules to determine their therapeutic and metabolic profiles and make improvements as necessary. Those with a preference for working in organic chemistry may be involved in compound design and synthesis as well as testing.
Clinical Research Associate
As a clinical research associate, you’ll develop and implement clinical protocols, data collection processes, and quality control measures for clinical trials. This work includes identifying potential issues, training personnel, and evaluating the progress of clinical studies.
Biomedical researchers study the causes and progression of diseases with the goal of better understanding how medications should function. They often work in laboratories, but many work in field research as part of community-based clinics.
Regulatory Affairs Specialist
Because pharmaceutical science focuses heavily on getting drugs approved for sale, the field lends itself well to regulatory affairs. Specialists in this role work with researchers and scientists to begin drug trials, apply for permits, and submit data for approval. They also assist with internal audits and improvements.
In addition to these careers, Janero notes that a master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences can be leveraged for a research-based doctoral degree later. Many programs, such as Northeastern’s, offer master’s students an accelerated course of study to help them earn their doctorates faster. A PhD can qualify you for supervisory and leadership positions both inside and outside of the lab, such as pharmaceutical representative and marketing analyst roles.
Earning a Master’s Degree in Pharmaceutical Science
Pursuing a master’s degree is an efficient way to gain the skills and experience needed for a career in pharmaceutical science. Northeastern’s program is led by faculty members with extensive industry experience who share their real-world knowledge with students.
“We incorporate into the curriculum the modern approaches in drug discovery that students will find in real life in the biotech and pharma industries, beyond the textbooks and lectures,” Janero says. “Northeastern University is ideally placed within the world-leading Boston biotech and medical ecosystems to ensure that our programs meet the demands of potential employers.”
This dedication to experiential learning extends to the program’s co-op program, which helps place students in four- to six-month jobs with companies in Boston’s thriving biotech and pharmaceutical industries.
Northeastern’s pharmaceutical sciences program also provides students with the opportunity to participate in on-campus labs and research projects. Students can work in drug design, synthesis, and profiling and study the latest approaches in drug and gene delivery to combat COVID-19, cancer, infectious diseases, substance use, and cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurological disorders.
For more information about Northeastern’s master’s in pharmaceutical science, explore our program page.