16th to 23rd November 2013 is Chemistry Week – the Royal Society of Chemistry’s biannual celebration of the Chemical Sciences. This year’s theme explores the important role of Chemistry in tackling some of the global challenges in the field of health. We have used this opportunity to collect together some resources to allow you to explore some aspects of this topic, highlighting some of the key area areas where Chemistry makes a vital contribution our understanding of human health. Click on the links in each of the following sections below to explore a topic further or to see what modules are available to study with The Open University.
The Chemistry of Life
Many chemical elements are vital to normal health, so an ideal point to begin is to consider the elements that are important for good health, which we obtain from our daily food and drink.
What chemical elements do you know that should be an essential part of a healthy diet? You can check your answers and further explore the role of particular elements including the amounts found in the body and particular organs, key roles and dietary sources by exploring:
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are important in a healthy diet in small quantities.
Vitamin C is found in large quantities in some fruit and vegetables. Explore how it is possible to determine how much vitamin C is found in fruit and vegetables and become part of the Chemistry Week Global Experiment. The analysis of the compounds in food and water is essential for the correct labelling of foodstuffs and is important in ensuring food is safe and water is clean.
You can explore further how scientists carry out such analyses in the course Analytical science: health, heritage and environments.
Like vitamins, minerals and trace elements are also important for maintaining a healthy body. One of the most abundant minerals in the body is iron which plays an essential role in the biochemistry of virtually all living organisms. The iron proteins, myoglobin and haemoglobin, for example, are essential for oxygen transport and storage in mammals.
Many of the roles of iron in the body remain a hot topic of debate amongst scientists. One current interest of interest is the role of abnormally high levels of iron in the brain. This iron accumulation, often associated with aging, has been implicated in a number of neurodegenerative conditions. The mechanisms involved in this iron accumulation remain unclear and treatments are being investigated using compounds to remove this excess iron. This is known as chelation therapy. You can explore the roles of metals in living systems in the module Metals and Life.
Preventions, treatments and cures
Undoubtedly one of the most important contributions chemistry has made to the field of health comes from the development of compounds useful in medicine. Drugs, antiseptics, anaesthetics and compounds used for medical imaging are all examples of ways in which chemistry contributes to the fight against disease and infection.
Compounds which kill bacteria, commonly known as antiseptics, are important in keeping wounds and surgical equipment sterile, preventing infection. You can read Making of Modern Medicine about the history of antiseptics, and explore some naturally occurring antiseptic compounds by taking the challenge of making an antibacterial cream.
Drugs and medicines provide an important means of combating disease and infection. Many of the drugs and medicines in use today have been developed using compounds isolated from natural sources as a starting point. You can learn about the chemistry of some of these types of compounds by following this link and the explore history of their development here.
You can explore the design of drugs and the way in which they are synthesised through the study of module Drug design and Synthesis. You can also see how this development can be informed by the study of the molecular basis of disease in module Molecules in Medicine and follow the path of a drug from the concept to the clinic in module Concept to Clinic.
Detection and diagnosis
Although we tend to think of chemistry as providing cures for disease, it is also important in the development of probes for the diagnosis of disease. Being able to look inside living systems helps us understand the processes going on within the body. Many different types of compounds find uses in medical imaging, such as copper-64 and gadolinium complexes. You can explore the use of metals in medical imaging through study of module Metals and Life.
You can read about the use of fluorescent compounds in medical imaging in the article Fluorescence imaging.
Materials for medicine
As well as providing drugs and compounds for medicine, chemists have an important role to play in the design of materials for healthcare.
Plastics and polymers are used extensively for a wide range of medical applications, from disposable materials such as syringes and surgical equipment, to specialist materials designed for implants and contact lenses. You can explore the science behind contact lenses by watching this video.
You can explore the uses and applications of biopolymers through study of module Science project course: frontiers in chemistry.