Advancing the field of medicinal chemistry

Being the  latest major to be introduced in Monash University Malaysia’s Bachelor of Science program, its lecturer Dr Ken Yeong believes the medicinal chemistry industry needs to grow in Malaysia.

At some point of your life, you would fall sick and need drugs ‒ but where do drugs come from? Medicinal chemistry may not sound familiar to everyone, but when you really start to realise, it is very related to us. Not many have given thought about the background work that goes into drug development, and that is where medicinal chemistry comes in.

“Medicinal chemists are the people who design and help to develop the drugs we have. Today, we know of more than 30,000 diseases, molecular cause for 4000 of them but we have treatment for only 250 of them,” said Dr Ken Yeong Keng Yoon, lecturer at the School of Science, Monash University Malaysia. He added that there is much more to be done in this field.

Medicinal chemistry is the latest major to be introduced in Monash University Malaysia’s Bachelor of Science program, and Dr Ken who will be teaching the subject himself, believes it is crucial for students to realise the importance of this field.

“It is an emerging and exciting field which involves particularly organic synthesis chemistry as well as life science and pharmaceutical science. However, it is still in its infancy in Malaysia because it is not relatively at the forefront of science and there isn’t a critical mass of people doing it as it requires a lot of effort and collaboration,” he said.

The timeline to develop a drug typically takes between 10 to 15 years and unlike international pharmaceutical companies that have all the technology and investment in place, how many companies in Malaysia are willing to invest an enormous amount of time, effort and money into developing a new drug? The risk is just too huge to take.

However Dr Ken believes the medicinal chemistry industry needs to grow in Malaysia, as like countries around the world, we are moving into an ageing society. This means an increasing number of people will live longer and indirectly, there will be more people getting sick and needing new treatment and cures. Thus, new drugs are always in need.

“At the moment, it feels slightly isolated in this field, as there aren’t enough scientists and definitely not enough collaborations. When you are isolated in research, things move at a much slower pace. You can’t possibly do everything on your own.. It would be good if we can have a platform to produce more scientists,” he said.

At the forefront of technology today, many are using computational methods to predict how drugs interact in the body and most of these can be predicted through computer programs. Also very recently, there are drug companies who are using artificial intelligence to develop and predict the interaction of drugs.

“At Monash, we also teach students how to use this technology, albeit at a very basic level. In the medicinal chemistry major, students learn about the different classes of drugs, their pharmacokinetics, drug discovery, as well as drug development which touch on the scale-up of drugs from laboratory to industrial scale.

“The aim is to make students realise the exciting things they could learn and relate to real life, as well as creating an interest and letting them know that eventually they might have the chance to make a difference in people’s lives,” Dr Ken said.  

Laboratories at Monash are well-equipped with intruments such as the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer and liquid chromatography-mass spectrophotometer to support the research in this field. Students will have a chance to sharpen their hands-on skills during the practical session. Students spend four hours a week working in the labs. Apart from the more traditional small molecules, students will be able to work on large molecules such as proteins and peptides.

“I would say passion is really important. If you are passionate, half the battle is won. Students need to devote quite a number of hours to excel in this major as it is a continuously evolving subject, covering a wide variety of topics. You could have a drug approved today and another withdrawn tomorrow, so you have to keep abreast on the latest developments,” Dr Ken said.

Upon graduation, students can look for jobs in the specific field of medicinal chemistry. They can work in pharmaceutical companies to help in the formulation, production, quality assurance and quality control of drugs. Apart from that, they can also be researchers or in academia, while some even go into patent offices. However, irrespective of the career path the graduates take after their studies, the knowledge and skills they gained from their Monash education stay with them.

“I am always interested in medicinal chemistry. I wouldn’t say it is because of a noble cause or anything like that, but it is something very personal. I thought if I was so lucky to hit a jackpot and develop a drug, I will be able to help at least some people in certain ways. Most people have the chance to survive but they just can’t afford the treatment. The dream is far I would have to admit, but we have to start dreaming,” said Dr Ken, whose research is in the area of cancer and Alzheimer’s; both well-known, but with no cure.