About Pharmacological Sciences at Harvard Medical School

Pharmacological Sciences at Harvard Medical School

    Harvard Medical School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University offer training in pharmacological sciences, leading to the PhD degree. Students receive a broad education in biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, and molecular biology, which are integrated with pharmacology. This multidisciplinary foundation provides the underpinnings for molecular approaches to drug action, discovery, and design and pharmacological approaches to fundamental biological processes. A large, diverse faculty leads research in numerous areas of molecular pharmacology ranging from determining the structures of drug targets to systems-based approaches to drug action. The research has therapeutic relevance for multiple disease areas including, among others, neurodegeneration, diabetes, cancer, and infections.


What is Pharmacological Sciences?

    We consider research in pharmacological sciences as encompassing the use of any relevant discipline to study a pharmacological problem, and the use of pharmacology to study a therapeutically relevant biological problem.  This research falls into three main categories at Harvard Medical School:  1) Studies of the actions of already-identified drugs and their target proteins and pathways; 2) Studies of proteins and pathways that can identify targets of future drugs; 3) Studies to discover or design new drugs. 

     Such studies then encompass genetic investigations in model organisms of conserved pathways and proteins that are significant for known or potential therapeutic drugs for humans (e.g. insulin signaling in nematodes), pharmacological methods to study pathways of differentiation and development that may have therapeutic implications (e.g. small molecules to study neuronal development and survival), and the discovery of new drug targets and new drugs starting from basic research in chemistry, genetics, cell biology, molecular biology, biophysics, systems biology, and biochemistry. Examples of these discovery efforts include identification of protein kinases that can serve as targets for anti-cancer drugs and identification of inhibitors of interactions of anti-apoptotic proteins.


History of the Program

    For roughly the first half of its existence (before 1987), the program was conducted within the Department of Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, with a few contributions from faculty in other departments.  In 1987, the Departments of Pharmacology and Biological Chemistry merged to form Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology (BCMP).  When the two departments merged, the training program became embedded in a larger graduate program at HMS, the "Triad".  In 1993, the Triad was merged into the still broader graduate program, Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS).  Today, trainees of this program are BBS graduate students, and all pharmacological sciences faculty are members of BBS.  Whereas, prior to 1987, nearly all the trainees performed research in Dept. of Pharmacology labs and nearly all the teaching was done by Pharmacology faculty, now research training is spread across a number of basic science and clinical departments, and faculty of these departments make important contributions to teaching and other training activities. 

     The evolution of the program from that of a small department to one with myriad interdepartmental interactions has resulted in a broader intellectual and experimental base for training in pharmacological sciences, with increased interactions among faculty and students performing pharmacologically relevant research. In summary, this is a longstanding training program in pharmacological sciences that ensures that students learn basic principles of pharmacology and gain exposure to cutting-edge research relevant to drug discovery and mechanisms.