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Subject Summary: Part IB Pharmacology

Pharmacology is the study of the mechanism of action of drugs on biological systems, whether the drug is synthetic, natural or endogenous. Pharmacologists can use this information to reveal how the biological system itself works, from atomic structures, signalling pathways, cells, tissues and organisms, to entire populations. The course covers many topics in relation to this general theme, including drug design, membrane ion channels, intracellular messengers, neurobiology, cancer chemotherapy, and the pharmacology of epithelial and endothelial systems. Current and future clinical applications of drugs are also discussed. There is no formal system of options and the timetable has been devised so that it is possible to attend every lecture. This structure provides for a wide diversity of interest and allows considerable personal choice in the selection of topics for more intensive study. The examinations are structured to take this provision for choice into account.

The course work consists of lectures, discussion groups, technique talks and a research project. Discussion groups consist of 10 students and two members of academic staff; they meet four times a term during both Michaelmas and Lent Terms. During these informal meetings students present literature-based and project-based seminars and practice presenting facts and arguments. In the second term, students work on a research project. The results of the project are presented by the student at a seminar in the third term, and the work is written up as a short dissertation. The final examination consists of four written papers, submission of the project report, an oral presentation of the project, and, in some cases, a viva voce examination. 

Most students entering this course have taken either Part IB of the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos or Part IB Pharmacology in the Natural Sciences Tripos. However, Natural Scientists who have taken any biological subject or Chemistry A and/or B are encouraged to enquire. 

Pharmacology lies at the heart of drug discovery, has enormous impact on the practice of medicine and veterinary medicine, and is a vital approach to understanding health and disease. There are substantial vocational opportunities for natural scientists reading pharmacology as well as for medical students who do so before proceeding to clinical studies.


Programme Specification: Part IB Pharmacology

This course is taught by the Department of Pharmacology


  1. to offer a course of lectures in the qualitative aspects of Pharmacology;
  2. to offer practical exercises in the quantitative aspects of Pharmacology;
  3. to assess student progress and attainment by formal examinations and mini-project poster presentation.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course, students should

  1. explain the principles of ligand-receptor interaction, local and intracellular messengers and integration of signalling pathways;
  2. identify the major classes of drug receptors and sites of drug action within the body;
  3. identify typical examples of drugs which are used to restore physiological functions in the cardiovascular, renal, respiratory, digestive, peripheral nervous and central nervous systems;
  4. demonstrate an understanding of the use of drugs to control inflammation and immune responses or to kill bacteria, viruses or malignant cells;
  5. apply the basic principles that govern the absorption, distribution and elimination of drugs to predict the time course of drug concentrations in the body and consider the implications of these principles for the therapeutic use of drugs;
  6. recognize the fundamental methods used in pharmacological research and be able to use basic pieces of research equipment.

Teaching and Learning Methods

These include lectures, practical classes, and seminars.


Assessment for this course is through:

  • two unseen written examinations (for aim 1 and learning outcomes 1-5);
  • one unseen practical examination (for aim 2 and learning outcomes 1, 5 and 6);
  • presentation of a poster with data gathered in a mini-project (for aim 3 and learning outcomes 1-6).

Courses of Preparation

Essential: A Level Biology and/or Chemistry.

Recommended: Part IA of the NST, including any of Biology of Cells, Chemistry or Physiology of Organisms.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.