Medicinal Chemistry Definition

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Medicinal chemistry or pharmaceutical chemistry is the chemistry discipline concerned with the design, development and synthesis of pharmaceutical drugs. The discipline combines expertise from chemistry and pharmacology to identify, develop and synthesize chemical agents that have a therapeutic use and to evaluate the properties of existing drugs.

Key Takeaways: Medicinal Chemistry

  • Medicinal chemistry is a discipline involved in the development, synthesis, and analysis of drugs and other bio-active agents.
  • Medicinal chemistry draws from organic chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, and medicine.
  • Training for a career in medicinal chemistry involves a strong foundation in organic chemistry and biochemistry. Usually, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry is required. However, because of its interdisciplinary nature, medicinal chemistry also requires a lot of on-the-job training.

Substances Studied in Medicinal Chemistry

Basically, a drug is any non-food substance that is used to treat or prevent a disease. Drugs are typically derived from small organic molecules, proteins, inorganic compounds, and organometallic compounds.

What Medicinal Chemists Do

Chemists have several options in this field. They include:

  • Researching the ways chemicals affect biological systems (either human or veterinary)
  • Developing new drugs and determining formulations to deliver bio-active compounds
  • Testing new drugs in lab experiments and patients
  • Identifying which other compounds might interact with the drug and determining the nature of the interaction
  • Developing protocols for drug administration
  • Developing guidelines for the way drugs are made and recommendations for their use, including recommendations to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Required Training

Medicinal chemistry requires a solid foundation in organic chemistry. Other valuable (possibly required) coursework includes physical chemistry, molecular biology, toxicology, statistics, project management, and computational chemistry. Typically, pursuit of this career path requires a four-year bachelor's degree in chemistry, followed by a 4-6 year Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Most applicants also complete at least two years of postdoctoral work. Some jobs only require a Master's degree, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. However, a strong applicant might exceed even the Ph.D./postdoc work by becoming a Registered Pharmacist (RPhs). While there are doctoral programs in medicinal chemistry, most positions still seek a degree in organic chemistry. The reason is that experience with benchwork is often a prerequisite for a job. For example, an applicant should be experienced with biological assays, molecular modeling, x-ray crystallography, and NMR. Drug development, synthesis, and characterization is a team effort, so collaboration is expected. Teams typically consist of organic chemists, biologists, toxicologists, pharmacists, and theoretical chemists.

In summary, required skills include:

  • Synthetic organic chemistry skills
  • Understanding of biology and how drugs work
  • Analytical instrumentation expertise
  • Demonstrated interpersonal skills and examples of teamwork
  • Communication skills, including the ability to write reports, orally present findings, and ability to communicate with nonscientists as well as different types of scientists

Hiring is usually by a pharmaceutical company, although some government agencies also employ medicinal chemists. The company then provides additional training in pharmacology and drug synthesis. Choosing a company to work for can be a tough choice. Large firms tend to stick with established, successful processes, so there is good security, but perhaps not as much room for innovation. Smaller firms are more likely to be on the cutting edge, but they pursue riskier ventures.

Medicinal chemists often start work in the lab. Some choose to stay there, while others move into related careers, such as quality control, quality assurance, process chemistry, project management, or technology transfer.

The job outlook for medicinal chemists is strong. However, many pharmaceutical companies have been downsizing, merging, or outsourcing overseas. According to the American Chemical Society (ACS), the median annual wage for medicinal chemists in 2015 was $82,240.


  • Barret, Roland (2018). Medicinal Chemistry: Fundamentals. London: Elsevier. ISBN 978-1-78548-288-5.
  • Carey, J. S.; Laffan, D.; Thomson, C.; Williams, M. T. (2006). "Analysis of the Reactions Used for the Preparation of Drug Candidate Molecules". Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry. 4 (12): 2337–47. doi:10.1039/B602413K
  • Dalton, Louisa Wray (2003). "Careers for 2003 and Beyond: Medicinal Chemistry". Chemical & Engineering News. 81(25): 53-54, 56.
  • Davis, Andrew; Ward, Simon E. (eds.) (2015). Handbook of Medicinal Chemistry: Principles and Practice Editors. Royal Society of Chemistry. doi:10.1039/9781782621836. ISBN 978-1-78262-419-6.
  • Roughley, S. D.; Jordan, A. M. (2011). "The Medicinal Chemist's Toolbox: An Analysis of Reactions Used in the Pursuit of Drug Candidates". Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. 54 (10): 3451–79. doi:10.1021/jm200187y
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Medicinal Chemistry Definition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 28). Medicinal Chemistry Definition. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Medicinal Chemistry Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 23, 2021).