The importance of biochemistry in medical science
Biochemistry is rapidly expanding, becoming one of the most influential areas of science. Combining the core tenets of biology and chemistry, the field plays a huge role in the development of novel new scientific approaches. But just how important is it to medicine?
Medical science cannot really exist without biochemistry.
Without the ongoing flurry of scientific breakthroughs made by biochemists, we wouldn’t have the precise chemical knowledge to create the vital drugs, therapies and diagnostic tools that are used every day.
Much like medical science itself, biochemistry is a vast area of research that yields profound discoveries each year. Biochemical techniques advance our understanding of the chemical structures and processes that underpin human health and disease, revealing the underlying transformations between them.
The implications of uncovering the causes of pathologies on a cellular level are huge. By being able to call on a working knowledge of biochemistry and other related disciplines such as molecular biology and immunology, those working in medical science have the potential to transform global healthcare.
And with the rise of public health threats such as air pollution and climate change, noncommunicable diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and dengue, the research of biochemists is needed more than ever.
In this article, we pinpoint exactly why biochemistry plays such a central role in the life sciences — particularly in medicine.
What is biochemistry?
As the name may suggest, biochemistry is a field of science that combines the two traditional disciplines of biology and chemistry. If chemistry is the science of matter, then biochemistry is the science of living matter.
Practitioners of biochemistry study the biochemical reactions that occur at the molecular level within living organisms. In medical biochemistry (also known as molecular biology), biochemical techniques are applied to human health and disease. The typical scope of medical biochemistry can include the following:
- The chemical components of the human body, including carbohydrates and lipids; amino acids and proteins; blood and plasma; biological membranes; nucleic acids (DNA and RNA)
- The major chemical processes in the human body, such as cell development; enzyme activity; membrane transport mechanisms; homeostasis; blood coagulation (clotting); oxygen transport; neurotransmitter function; ageing
- Nutrition and mineral metabolism, including the role and function of vitamins in the body
- Molecular genetics
Much of biochemical inquiry deals with the structures, functions and interactions of biological macromolecules — large and complex molecules (such as proteins) which provide the structure of cells and perform many of the functions associated with life.
The chemistry of the cell also depends on the reactions of smaller molecules and ions. These molecules can be organic (e.g. the amino acids that are used to synthesize proteins) or inorganic (e.g. water and metal ions).
Medicine is just one area that has benefited from biochemistry. The discipline has made vital contributions to the fields of including cell biology, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology, immunology, nutrition, forensic medicine, and toxicology, as well as the fields of inflammation, cell injury, and cancer.
Aside from medicine, biochemical research is also applied in industry, agriculture and food production. When taking all these applications into consideration, it’s clear that biochemistry is far from a single, monolithic discipline.
What does a biochemist do?
On a day-to-day basis, biochemists typically carry out research projects, manage laboratory teams, prepare technical reports and present research findings to scientists and key stakeholders.
Using electron microscopes, lasers and state-of-the-art laboratory instruments, they conduct experiments by analysing enzymes, DNA and other molecules.
These laboratory experiments cover a range of subjects, from extracting living cell samples from plants and animals for genetic research to developing effective new medicines for the pharmaceutical industry. Once complete, the results are then analysed in an office environment using advanced data modelling software.
Working in research teams alongside experts from other scientific fields, biochemists are predominantly employed across the life sciences sector (including pharmaceuticals, biotech, toxicology, food technology and vaccine production). They are also frequently employed in research roles in academic and government institutions.
What impact has biochemical research had on medical science?
Ever since Eduard Buchner’s 1897 discovery that a cell-free extract of yeast can ferment sugar (widely considered to be the birth of biochemistry), biochemistry has enjoyed an intimate relationship with medicine — illuminating many aspects of human health and diseases.
For anyone working in medicine or a related field, sufficient biochemical knowledge is needed in order to properly understand the metabolism, function and growth of a healthy human body.
In physiology, the study of body function, biochemistry has broadened our understanding of how biochemical changes relate to physiological alteration in the body. It helps us understand the chemical aspects of biological processes such as digestion, hormonal action, and muscle contraction-relaxation.
In pathology, the study of how aberrant biochemistry relates to disease conditions in the human body, physicians can use biochemical analysis to confirm predictions based on patient testimony.
For example, if a patient complains of sudden, severe pain in one or more joints, the physician may predict the problem to be gout — a form of arthritis caused by an excess of uric acid in the bloodstream. By measuring uric acid levels, biochemistry can then confirm whether gout is the root of the problem.
All diseases have a molecular basis, so biochemistry enables us to understand the chemical processes involved in conditions as varied as:
- hyperammonemia, hypo- and hyperthyroidism
- hypo- and hyperparathyroidism
- kidney dysfunction
- sickle cell anaemia
- dental fluorosis
- acidosis and alkalosis
- lysosomal storage diseases
With information gleaned from the chemical nature of pathologies, biochemists working in medicine are able to investigate potential treatments for diseases.
The action of a drug almost always involves some change in the biochemical processes taking place in the body. As such, pharmacologists must also be acquainted with the biochemical aspects of the human body. In pharmacy, biochemical testing provides indispensable insights into a drug’s:
- mode of action
- storage conditions
- potential toxic or adverse effects
Biochemistry is also the sole field that accurately describes the function and role of vitamins in the body. With millions of people taking daily vitamins and mineral supplements, the ongoing discoveries made by biochemists will continue to exert a huge impact on the field of nutritional deficiency.
In all, the real impact of biochemistry is hard to quantify. From lab-grown placentas that “will transform pregnancy research” to new drugs that wipe out antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the trailblazing work of biochemists continues to expand the horizons of medical science.
What does the future hold for biochemistry?
The many subfields of biochemistry are certainly going places.
As we discussed in a previous blog post, genomics — the study of an organism’s complete set of DNA — is one related field of biochemistry that carries long-term implications for drug development and clinical workflows.
Genome sequencing, for example, is causing a ‘revolution’ in early diagnosis — a breakthrough that could fast-track the development of vital new treatments for a range of health conditions.
And with biochemical research being augmented by rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the ability to quickly and efficiently analyse vast pools of data enables scientists to chart previously unexplored areas of biochemistry.
Given its central role in the life sciences as a sustainable way to solve a myriad of science, health and industrial problems, employment opportunities in biochemistry are expected to skyrocket in the next decade.
Of course, medical science does not exist solely to expand our knowledge of the nature of life. It exists to have a practical application: to improve clinical practice.
The molecular phenomena discovered through biochemical analysis help to facilitate this — providing research that gives on-the-ground health professionals greater scope to fulfil their duty of care.
In fact, the trajectory of medical science in the next decade rests upon the discoveries made by biochemists in the laboratory setting. In the week before the publication of this blog alone, a biochemical study found that a common acne drug can prevent artery hardening, while another suggested that women have better episodic memory than men. The scope for research seems almost limitless.
All life on Earth depends on biochemical reactions and processes. By integrating this scientific knowledge with practical strategies to maintain health, understand diseases, identify potential treatments, and enhance our understanding of the origins of life on earth, biochemistry is and will remain one of the most important areas of science.
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