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Pharmacology for understanding how drugs work and their mechanisms of action

Pharmacology is the study of the mechanisms (structures) through which a drug is expressed before it causes a biological reaction. Of course, understanding what effects a drug has is important, but for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, understanding the mechanism of how it works is even more important. Professor Saitoh says, “Drug development has advanced by understanding pharmacological action. In other words, if we go back through history, we find that many drugs came into use because they worked, although it wasn’t known why. From there, research into why drugs work led to the study of pharmacological action.” Many of the students at the TUS Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences are future pharmacists, and many are pursuing careers in drug discovery. Pharmacological action is the knowledge that allows pharmacists to explain to their patients why drugs were prescribed and why they work. It is also fundamental to drug development in drug discovery, such as drugs that work better or drugs that work the same way but have fewer side effects.

Learning that extends to an understanding of biological systems and pathologies

Pharmacology is not limited to how drugs work. It extends to a complex interlocking understanding of the human body and understanding of pathologies. “Drugs have main actions and side effects,” explains Professor Saitoh. “From the point of view of how to explain side effects, it is also necessary to consider new mechanisms of action. In other words, rather than concluding with a single pharmacological action, unless we understand, for example, the mechanisms of the brain and nerves, and even a disease itself, we cannot understand both the main actions and the side effects.” Pharmacology is one of the fundamental disciplines of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, but it is only an entry point, says Professor Saitoh. “The mechanism of action refers to the drugs that exist now. What we really want to do is to use it as a gateway to create new drugs. To do this, we need to understand the main actions and side effects of drugs, as well as the mechanisms by which they work and do not work. Furthermore, we will be able to create better drugs only when we have a full understanding of living systems and pathological conditions.”

Expectations for new drug development, including psychotropic drugs

Professor Saitoh specializes in psychopharmacology and psychotropic drug development. There are many kinds of mental disorders, including diseases such as dementia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. These are often thought of as diseases of the mind, but evidence of abnormal brain anatomy and function is being found, and drug treatment has begun for them as diseases of the brain. Such treatment has been made possible by pharmacology, which bridges the gap between people and drugs by clarifying brain function and brain pathophysiology. Professor Saitoh says, “Drug treatments have begun, but I think there are still not many people being cured. Diseases of the circulatory system and so on can now be controlled to some extent with medication, but in comparison, this has only just begun for mental illnesses.” With the knowledge of this current situation, there are many students who intend to develop psychotropic drugs. From another perspective, this may mean that we can see up close how the number of people suffering from mental illness is increasing in contemporary Japan’s aging and high-stress society. The importance of pharmacology is increasing more and more.

Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Department of Pharmacy
Professor Akiyoshi Saitoh

■ Main research themes

Professor Saitoh’s specialty is neuropsychopharmacology. He is conducting research on psychotropic drugs, such as antidepressants and anxiolytics, as well as therapeutic agents for dementia. He is currently engaged in the discovery and development of novel psychotropic drugs targeting opioid delta receptors.

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