Pharmacology is the science of the nature and properties of substances used for treating diseases (it is distinct from pharmacy which is the preparing and dispensing of prescription drugs). Pharmacology is a comparatively modern science which has developed enormously this century and is still expanding rapidly. Penicillin, which was the first commercial antibiotic, the hormone insulin, vitamin C, the first vitamin to be synthesised, and prostaglandins, are all examples of biologically active substances that have been discovered and synthesised this century.
Marine pharmacologists work with extracts or substances isolated from marine organisms. Many exciting biologically active substances such as anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-tumour, and biologically toxic compounds have been discovered in, and isolated from, marine plants and from marine animals as diverse as sponges, fish, sea squirts and echinoderms. The yield of such substances from marine species has been greater than that obtained from terrestrial species.
The whole pathway of discovery of pharmacological activity, isolation, purification, and characterisation of a unique active substance requires close interaction between pharmacologists and chemists. Once biologically active substances have been characterised, the marine pharmacologist will continue to work closely with a chemist to develop methods of synthesising the substance or an active analogue of it. There are many benefits of developing synthetic means of production, such as reducing costs of commercial production, the ability to obtain pure substances, and minimising impact on the marine species in which useful substances were first found.
Substances used to treat human diseases must be examined rigorously for their activity in biological systems and for the activity of metabolites produced by interactions of the drug with the living system. Therefore, for registration as a therapeutic substance, extensive tests must be conducted on pure substances to evaluate both their beneficial and adverse effects on animals and ultimately on humans.
Marine pharmacology continues to benefit from close interdisciplinary interaction with marine biologists and chemists, and from an increased understanding of the mechanisms of action of existing drugs, metabolism, drug specificity for action at particular 'receptor sites', the development of alternative tests to those requiring live animals, and improvements in synthetic chemistry technology.
Pharmacologists are employed by most of the larger hospitals, universities, and in industry, particularly in the drug industry. An area of marine pharmacology expected to require increased attention in the future as high density farming of marine animal and seaweed species increases in Australia is in disease control and ensuring the well-being of animals grown for production.
Photo: A researcher involved in the process of isolation, purification and characterisation of natural substances, which requires a large amount of laboratory work.