VOLUME 3 - ISSUE 3 - PHARMACOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
The Department last hosted the Winter meeting of the BPS in 1991. It now returns at a very appropriate time, the centenary year of the formation of the Pharmacology Department at UCL in 1905.
With the founding of the Institute of Medical Sciences in 1905, the Department of Pharmacology was established - the first such department in England, housed at that time in a single room - with A R Cushny as its first Professor. Cushny was very interested in optical isomerisation and he reported on an early clinical trial using hyoscine isomers which was later analysed by Student in his now seminal work, ‘the probable error of the mean’. Cushny was succeeded in 1919 by A J Clark, the first pharmacologist who inculcated a quantitative aspect into pharmacology by studying in detail and describing the principles of the relationship between the concentration of a drug and its effect at a receptor. In 1923, while at UCL, Clark wrote his textbook on “Applied Pharmacology” – subsequently updated many times by others in the department and still extant in the form of the standard textbook “Pharmacology” by Rang, Dale, Ritter and
“In the first place, there is no advantage in fitting curves by a formula unless this expresses some possible physico-chemical process, and it is undesirable to employ formulae that imply impossibilities. It is a question of finding a few systems so simple that it is possible to establish with reasonable probability the relation between the quantity of drug and the action produced…”.
In more recent times, the receptor-ion channel core interest of the Department came to the fore under the leadership of Humphrey Rang (1979-1983) and Donald Jenkinson (1983-1987). My predecessor as Head of Department was David Brown (1987-2002), who discovered the acetylcholine (muscarinic)-sensitive potassium channel (M channel) and led the Department during one of its most formative eras when it became clear that advances in technology, particularly electrophysiology and molecular biology, enabled more and more incisive experimental design by which the properties of single receptors and ion channels and the actions of drugs on these could be discovered. In 1987
The Department has maintained a very strong research record. It is the only Department of Pharmacology in the
Using more neurochemically based methods, Neil Millar continues to dissect the function of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in addition to investigating the actions of insecticides that target these receptors in insects, whilst Talvinder Sihra’s research concentrates on the presynaptic nerve terminal, concerned mostly with mechanisms that regulate transmitter release.
A second grouping in the Department concerns a more integrated systems approach. Tony Dickenson has received numerous awards for his work on mechanisms of pain and his group bridges the often exaggerated gap that is perceived to lie between basic and clinical sciences. Clare Stanford takes a more psychopharmacological approach to the study of anxiety, particularly relating to monoaminergic transmission. Ralf Schoepfer spans several areas from the molecular to systems with his interests in learning and memory mechanisms from the synaptic gluta-mate receptors to gene knock-outs and whole animal behaviour. Andrew Ramage is our only member based at the
The Department prides itself on being a research-led university teaching Department which undertakes a full BSc teaching programme in Pharmacology as well as a joint degree with Physiology, in addition to teaching pharmacology to medical students. The Department supports a full laboratory teaching programme to instil the major elements of practical pharmacology to all our students. To achieve this, we rely on the dedication of the staff, supported by know-ledgeable and professionally committed technical staff. At the postgraduate level, the Department participates in the Wellcome Trust 4-year Neuroscience degree programme, a similar 4-year MRC programme in Biomedical Sciences, and the CoMPLEX 4-year PhD programme whose mission is to enable mathematical and physical sciences students to undertakes research in the biological sciences. These schemes operate in addition to our regular 3-year PhD studentships.
So much for the past and present of UCL Pharmacology. What about the future? The outlook is promising and bright. New appointments are joining us to enhance our work on potassium channels and also open a new vista into the cystic fibrosis transmembrane regulator. The opening of the Andrew Huxley building has given the Department a fresh look, which has been helped by significant SRIF awards to refurbish much of our other infrastructure to the standards expected of the 21st century. The recent calls by research councils for more integrated science around the themes of integrated physiology, systems biology and more translational science, all include substantive elements of what we recognise as pharmacology, so the future should be looked on with enthusiasm. Any clouds? Well, yes. In any organisation where funding is constrained there will be clouds. Should we remain as a Department or become part of a larger division? Should we embrace ‘omics,’ and disease led thematic groupings? The answer to these questions is, of course, yes. They are already happening for very good scientific reasons, but should this spawn a rearrangement of the way we work? Organizational structures rarely foster integrated science per se. This is the preserve of talented individuals with a capacity and need to collaborate. Of course, we can place people in the same area and hope that sparks fly, but how big is that area to be, will it encompass basic scientists and clinicians and what about the mathematical and physical sciences? Collaborative arrangements are by their very nature highly dynamic: what is suitable today may be obsolete tomorrow. Do we therefore embark on future structural re-arrangements? What is clearly important is that we should all ensure that there are no barriers to scientific integration, particularly when presented with suggestions from aspiring individuals or groups. After all, it is becoming quite difficult to define the edges of pharmacology: so many techniques are required from what used to be regarded as other disciplines. The debate regarding the best way to achieve this will no doubt continue.
Trevor G Smart
Schild Professor of Pharmacology & Head of Dept of Pharmacology, UCL