Understanding Drugs Actions and Reactions

Dr Jenny Koenig

quote2How is it that a tiny pill can have such a big impact on our body and the way we feel? Is it possible to design the perfect silver bullet: a drug that doesn’t have any adverse effects? Drugs work by hijacking or blocking specific biological processes and this provides a framework for our understanding of existing drug action and a basis for the discovery and development of new drugs. We will look at a range of commonly used medicines including, for example, those for allergies, inflammation, infection and pain, and examine how we think they work and why they might have unwanted effects.

We will start by looking at how our current understanding of drug action developed over the past century by analysing the action of natural products, predominantly herbs. Many of these herbs are still in use, though these days they are purified and the active ingredient is administered. Sometimes the active ingredient is modified chemically to make the medicine more specific or better tolerated. We will then contrast this historical approach with an insight into the ways in which drugs are discovered today with the use of robotics and information technology. Along the way we will introduce the physiology and biochemistry concepts required to understand drug action.

In addition to understanding what the drug does to the body we will investigate what the body does to the drug. How is it that a drug gets to its site of action? What controls the level of drug in the body over time? The way in which the drug is distributed and inactivated plays an important role in interactions between drugs and the role of the diet and environment on drug action. We will look at why you shouldn’t take some drugs with grapefruit juice, or with milk or with alcohol.

This course is aimed at:  A broad audience of students from biology, psychology, neuroscience, chemistry majors as well as students considering medical school.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: A strong upper high school background in biology and chemistry will be advantageous however the essential physiology and biochemistry will be introduced as required.

Optional pre-course reading:

Drugs: A Very Short Introduction” by Leslie Iversen, Oxford University Press. A very accessible, entertaining, brief and readable account.

“Magic Molecules: How Drugs Work” by Susan Aldridge. An accessible account of a selection of drug classes. Getting a little dated now (published 1998) but the information still holds.

Optional for those interested in the historical accounts: “Drug Discovery: A History” by Walter Sneader, John Wiley and Sons.

Core Reading

“Rang and Dale’s Pharmacology” Seventh Edition. HP Rang, MM Dale, JM Ritter, RJ Flower and G Henderson. Elsevier.

“Basic and Clinical Pharmacology” 11th Edition. BG Katzung, SB Masters and AJ Trevor. McGraw Hill.

“Integrated Pharmacology” 2nd Edition. C Page, M Curtis, M Sutter, MWalker and B Hoffman.


1 Final Exam: 45%

1 Final Essay: 45%

Participation, progress and attendance: 10%

Lecture hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)