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Live image of cell and tissue

Written by Nigel Emptage, Head of Department, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology


Pharmacology is one of the five pre-clinical departments that form part of the University’s Medical Sciences Division and our focus is on basic life sciences research, undergraduate teaching for medicine and biomedical science, and the training of graduate students.

We are at the forefront of research into the effects of drugs and other molecules on biological systems with a view to understanding the mechanisms of the human body. Our pre-clinical research examines cellular and molecular pathways in living systems as the first step towards an understanding of disease and effective treatment. Pharmacology, as the study of the action of chemical substances in the body, is a subject of considerable human and commercial importance. Pharmacology recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary. Founded in 1912, we have an eminent history of world-leading research conducted by scientists such as Professor Sir William Paton FRS, who discovered the first drug to treat high blood pressure, Sir John Vane FRS, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982, Professor Edith Bulbring FRS, one of the first women elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, and more recently Professor Peter Somogyi FRS, winner of the inaugural 2011 Brain Prize. In 1987 the University received a generous endowment from the Squibb Research Institute, providing funds for a new Pharmacology building as well as supporting research. Our new, laboratories were opened in July 1991.  The new building provides the space and facilities required for world class research. Since our foundation, we have played an important role in training: many current leaders in academic and industrial pharmacology spent their formative years within the Department. Since 2006 the

Pharmacology Statutory Chair has been held by Professor Antony Galione FRS, and the Head of Department is Professor Nigel Emptage. Our research groups work within four key themes, cardiovascular pharmacology, medicinal chemistry, cell signalling, and neuropharmacology. In the cardiovascular pharmacology theme, research using advanced imaging and electrophysiological techniques examines the cellular and intracellular mechanisms of the heart and microcirculation. Calcium signalling is a central focus of the cardiovascular pharmacology grouping, aligning this research closely with the cell signalling theme. Groups in this theme use advanced live cell imaging and electrophysiological techniques to link molecular and cellular mechanisms to functional tissue responses under both physiological and pathophysiological conditions in the heart and the microcirculation. In our recently expanded medicinal chemistry theme, research is carried out into the design, synthesis and biological evaluation of active organic molecules at the interfaces of chemistry and biology. Developments in this area have been driven by a joint appointment with the Department of Chemistry and the arrival of a synthetic medicinal chemistry group. Work is characterised by a unifying focus to exploit chemical principles for intervention in biology and medicine.  Repurposed drugs are currently undergoing trials for bipolar disorders.

The neuropharmacology theme aims to develop compounds to benefit humans with psychiatric and neurological disease. Researchers in this theme use chemical tools to explore the complexities of the nervous system, with the long-term goal of developing compounds that offer therapeutic benefit in humans with psychiatric and neurological disease. Our vision is that developing an integrated knowledge of the cellular and molecular mechanisms controlling communication between distinct cell types in key brain centres will ultimately allow a full understanding of human behaviour and cognition. Our research encompasses multidisciplinary aspects of modern molecular and cellular neuroscience taking full advantage of state-of-the-art research techniques such as opto- and chemogenetics, high-resolution in-vivo multiphoton imaging, stem cell biology and neurophysiological recordings combined with mathematical and computational modelling. Academic staff also collaborate with clinical researchers to enhance the impact of this research on patients and those who care for them. Researchers in the signalling theme employ state of the art subcellular imaging, ion channel electrophysiology (including single channel studies), and the generation of novel molecular and chemical probes to dissect signalling pathways. Signalling is concerned with how cells communicate and the intracellular responses generated in response to chemicals including hormones, neurotransmitters and drugs. We are particularly strong in the areas of calcium signalling and organelle-based signalling in health and disease, with particular focus on the lysosome.  Drugs have been developed to treat rare genetic lysosomal storage disease and are now in clinical use.

Our senior academic staff (approximately 25) provide lectures, seminars and tutorials for undergraduate students undertaking the Medicine and Biomedical Sciences courses. The teaching provided takes the form of lectures and practical classes and, additionally, all academic members of the Department, with the exception of research fellows, provide the full quota of college undergraduate tutorial teaching in the area of Physiology and Pharmacology. These tutorials complement the lectures and tutorials. We offer a comprehensive, and possibly unparalleled, programme of practical classes for the year 1 and 2 undergraduate BMS and Medical students. The hands-on experience of in-vitro and in-vivo practical classes is an essential component of student study and aids the understanding of physiological and pharmacological principles. These classes provide a critical grounding in the practical problems associated with conducting real experiments, the analysis of experimental data and in writing up of experimental results. The skills learnt provide an important foundation for the third year lab based experimental research projects. Our Chemical Pharmacology supplementary course, under the Directorship of Associate Professor Grant Churchill, now attracts around 100 undergraduates a year from a diverse audience of chemists, biochemists, biomedical and medical students.  We also host an internationally-renowned one-year MSc taught course in Pharmacology for around 30 students each year, and have a community of around 50 DPhil students. A notable contribution to the world-wide teaching of Pharmacology is the textbook ‘Rang and Dale’s Pharmacology’ co-authored by Dr Maureen Dale, a long-standing associate member of the Department.