Category: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

What Happens to Medicine in Your Body?

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Cutaway diagram of the human body (head, arms, and torso) showing the blood (arteries in red and veins in blue) and internal organs. Drug delivery is shown by intravenous drip with a blue arrow into the arm, medicine tablet with a black arrow into the mouth, and inhaler with a blue arrow through the mouth into both lungs. The life of the drug in the body is shown by black arrows from mouth to stomach, from stomach to liver, from liver to heart, from blood to kidney, and from liver to intestines.
Medicines administered orally, by inhaler, and intravenously enter the stomach, lungs, and veins, respectively. They’re absorbed, then circulate throughout the body in the blood, are processed by the liver, and excreted by the kidneys and intestines. Credit: NIGMS.

Have you ever wondered what happens inside your body when you take a medicine? An area of pharmacology called pharmacokinetics is the study of precisely that. Here, we follow a medicine as it enters the body, finds its therapeutic target (also called the active site), and then eventually leaves the body.

To begin, a person takes or is given a dose of medicine by a particular route of administration, such as by mouth (oral); through the skin (topical), mucous membranes
(nasal), or lungs (inhaled); or through a needle into a muscle (intramuscular) or into a vein (intravenous). Sometimes medicines can be administered right where they’re needed, like a topical antibiotic ointment on a scrape, but most medicines need to enter the blood to reach their therapeutic target and be effective. Those are the ones we’ll continue following, using the common pharmacokinetic acronym ADME:

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What Is Pharmacology?

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A collage of different cartoon images showing scientists working across a spectrum of basic science, chemistry, biology, research, genetics, and medicine, illustrated by images of an EKG readout, test tubes and a pipette, a syringe and medicine bottle, a chemical structure, a microscope, a pill bottle and pill, a data chart, a hospital, a DNA strand, and a human silhouette.
Credit: iStock.

Pharmacology is the study of how molecules, such as medicines, interact with the body. Scientists who study pharmacology are called pharmacologists, and they explore the chemical properties, biological effects, and therapeutic uses of medicines and other molecules. Their work can be broken down into two main areas:

  • Pharmacokinetics is the study of how the body acts on a medicine, including its processes of absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion (ADME).
  • Pharmacodynamics is the study of how a medicine acts in the body—both on its intended target and throughout all the organs and tissues in the body.
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Copper Keeps Us Going

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Copper pipes, copper wires, copper…food? Copper is not only a useful metal for conducting electricity, but it’s also an essential element we need in our bodies for a variety of important activities—from metabolizing iron to pigmenting skin.

A graphic showing copper’s symbol Cu, atomic number 29, and atomic weight 63.546, all connected by lines to illustrations of the Statue of Liberty, a lightning bolt labeled “conductor,” and a crab labeled “blue blood.” New York’s Statue of Liberty is coated in 80 tons of copper, and oxidation causes its green color. Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity. It’s used in wiring, electronics, and lightning conductors. Crustaceans use copper complexes to transport oxygen in their blood, giving it a blue color. Across the bottom is the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Copper is required to keep your body going. Enzymes that use copper are called cuproenzymes, and they catalyze a wide range of reactions, including making neurotransmitters and connective tissue. The element is found on the Statue of Liberty’s covering, in wiring and electronics, and in the blue blood of crustaceans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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Why Am I So Tired?

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An alarm clock rests on top of a model of the human brain. In the background, gold stars against a dark blue backdrop represents nighttime (left), and white and light blue clouds against a light blue backdrop represents daytime (right).
Circadian rhythms control the timing of many daily changes in your body. Credit: iStock.

If you struggle to wake up in time for school or work or feel drowsy during a trip abroad, your circadian rhythms may be out of sync with your environment. Circadian rhythms are your internal timekeepers, and almost all organisms, from bacteria to plants and animals, have them. You can’t see them, but you can feel their effects—they control when you get sleepy, when you wake up in the morning, and when you feel hungry. Among other signals, the brain uses sunlight to keep time.

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In Other Words: What’s It Mean to Be Organic?

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The word organic is often used to talk about fruits and vegetables that have been produced in a specific way, typically without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But to chemists, organic refers to carbon-containing compounds that are the basis for all living organisms. Ironically, the chemicals prohibited in the farming of organic produce are usually organic molecules.

Below the title, Organic: In Other Words, two images are separated by a jagged line. On the left is a picture of green fruits and vegetables including kiwis, apples, bell peppers, and Brussel sprouts. On the right is a conical flask filled with blue liquid sitting on a paper with chemical structures on it. Under the images, text reads: Did you know? In chemistry, organic refers to carbon-containing compounds that are the basis for all living organisms.
Credit: NIGMS.

Organic chemists study, create, and explore carbon-containing molecules. Most organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, but they can also include other elements like nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and more. Organic compounds are all around you, from the phospholipids in your body that make up your cell membranes and the NSAID pain reliever that might be in your medicine cabinet to the fabric of the shirt you’re wearing.

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Science Snippet: Antioxidants Explained

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A spread of antioxidant-rich foods such as strawberries, kale, lemon, spinach, blueberries, tomatoes, parsley, grapefruit, carrots, and legumes.
Many types of fruits, vegetables, and legumes are rich in antioxidants. Credit: iStock.

While at the grocery store, you’ve likely noticed foods with labels saying they contain antioxidants, but what does that mean? In short, antioxidants are substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage. Many foods, including fruits and vegetables, naturally produce antioxidants like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and selenium. Our bodies also naturally produce antioxidant molecules such as alpha-lipoic acid, glutathione, and coenzyme Q10.

Antioxidants are united by their ability to donate electrons, which helps them protect the body against reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS form naturally during exercise, when your body converts food into energy, or during exposure to certain environmental factors such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. These molecules can “steal” electrons from other molecules, and though they aren’t always harmful, consistently high amounts of ROS in your body can cause a condition known as oxidative stress that can damage cells. That cell damage may also lead to chronic diseases, especially if ROS steal electrons from DNA or other important molecules and alter their functions.

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Pump Up the Potassium

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The element potassium plays a pivotal role in our bodies. It’s found in all our cells, where it regulates their volume and pressure. To do this, our bodies carefully control potassium levels so that the concentration is about 30 times higher inside cells than outside. Potassium works closely with sodium, which regulates the extracellular fluid volume and has a higher concentration outside cells than inside. These concentration differences create an electrochemical gradient, or a membrane potential.

A graphic showing potassium’s symbol K, atomic number 19, and atomic weight 39.098 connected by lines to illustrations of soap, a nerve cell, and a banana. Potassium hydroxide is used to make liquid soaps. Potassium compounds are also used in fertilizers. In humans, potassium ions regulate blood pressure and transmission of nerve impulses. The potassium-40 isotope causes low level radioactivity in bananas and in humans and animals. Across the bottom of the graphic is the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Potassium is the primary regulator of the pressure and volume inside cells, and it’s important for nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and more. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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Career Conversations: Q&A With Biochemist Prabodhika Mallikaratchy

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A headshot of Dr. Mallikaratchy.
Credit: CUNY School of Medicine.

“One of the biggest things I hope for in my career is that in 20 years, I still feel the same joy and enthusiasm for research and training that I feel now,” says Prabodhika Mallikaratchy, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular, cellular, and biomedical sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Medicine. Dr. Mallikaratchy talks with us about her career path, research on developing new immunotherapies and molecular tools using nucleic acids, and her belief in the importance of being passionate about your career.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was always a curious child. I remember being drawn to science and math, but there was no particular incident that sparked my interest. By the time I reached high school, though, I had become especially interested in chemistry.

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Manganese: The Magical Element?

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The element manganese is essential for human life. It’s aptly named after the Greek word for magic, and some mysteries surrounding its role in the body still exist today—like how our bodies absorb it, if very high or low levels can cause illness, or how it might play a role in certain diseases.

A graphic showing manganese’s symbol Mn, atomic number 25, and atomic weight 54.938 connected by lines to illustrations of steel railways, a bone, and a drinking can. Manganese steel contains ~13 percent manganese. It’s very strong and used for railways, safes, and prison bars. Manganese is essential for organisms. It’s needed for strong bones, and many enzymes also contain it. Drink cans are made with an alloy of aluminum and manganese, which helps prevent corrosion. Across the bottom of the graphic are the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Manganese is necessary for metabolism, bone formation, antioxidation, and many other important functions in the body. The element is found in strong steel, bones and enzymes, and drink cans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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Career Conversations: Q&A With Polymer Chemist Frank Leibfarth

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A headshot of Dr. Leibfarth.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Frank Leibfarth.

“I love that you can change the molecular-level structure of a material, then pull it, bend it, or twist it and see firsthand how the molecular changes you introduced influence its stretchiness or bendiness,” says Frank Leibfarth Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. In an interview, Dr. Leibfarth shares with us his scientific journey, his use of chemistry to tackle challenges in human health and sustainability, and his beliefs on what makes a career in science exciting.

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