Option D

Option D : Medicinal chemistry


Option D: Medicinal chemistry is one of my favourite options. As 'Drugs and medicines' it used to be part of the old Standard level Applied Chemistry course and was dropped when that course was merged into what was then the 'new' Chemistry course during the big revision of 1996. I updated it and taught 'Medicines and Drugs' as a school based option at both SL and HL for five years before it was brought back in again as a full option in the next review of the programme in 2001 and again in 2007.

Rather like Option B: Biochemistry, students enjoy studying it as they can easily relate to medicines and drugs and how they can affect their own body. It is also similar to Option B in that it deals with some quite complex molecules so the emphasis is on understanding how they function and recognizing the important functional groups they contain rather than just learning structures. Indeed virtually all the structures they need are all given in Section 37 of the IB Chemistry data booklet. You might be tempted to think that it would be a useful preparation to those who want to go on and study medicine; but in reality it probably does not make much difference which one of the four options students study now that they all contain the same four strands of quantitative, analytical, environmental and organic chemistry. Certainly on the old programme (last exam November 2015) the option on Medicines and drugs was one of the most popular options worldwide at both Standard and Higher Level and the new Option D : Medicinal chemistry continues to be very popular on the current programme.

There is some material in this option which could cause problems if it is handled insensitively. There are antibiotics such as penicillins which are used to treat sexually transmitted diseases and it also covers anti-virals which are used to treat  conditions such as HIV / AIDS. Equally some head teachers and governors may not be too keen on their students studying drugs such as heroin. However there is serious chemistry behind the study of these substances and students should be aware of the social harm that the abuse of drugs such as ethanol (alcohol) and diamorphine (heroin) can cause as well as understanding the chemistry associated with them.

Obviously practical work cannot be carried out involving some of the drugs mentioned as their use is illegal but nevertheless there is plenty of good practical work that can still be done. For example, the over the counter antacids and mild painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol (acetaminophen) and ibuprofen all offer plenty of scope for preparative, analytical and chromatographic techniques.

This option starts by looking at how medicines and drugs affect the body, how they are administered and how new drugs are developed. It then looks at specific classes of drugs which include analgesics (both mild and opiates), penicillins, antacids and antivirals and the environmental impact of using some medications. Higher Level students then look in detail at how one particular drug (taxol) is made using chiral auxiliaries, the use of nuclear isotopes in radiotherapy and how drugs can be detected and analysed.


The linked pages basically follow the syllabus and take each sub-topic in turn. They start with ‘Pause for thought’, which aims to stimulate and get you (and your students) thinking about some aspect of the topic. A box follows this on how Nature of Science is addressed by the sub-topic, then learning outcomes (‘understandings’ and ‘applications and skills’), clarifications, the international-dimension, teaching tips, key vocabulary and other resources (including videos and the relevant pages in my Study Guide) and suggestions for homework. Each sub-topic has an embedded slide gallery which covers all the syllabus content and contains tasks with worked answers. For all of the topics there is an attached link leading to a separate page with original questions (together with worked answers) on the topic. Although the IB does not test the options using multiple choice questions I have also provided a quiz containing ten questions with the answers explained for each sub-topic as it provides an efficient and quick way for students to test both their knowledge and understanding.

Introductory Videos

The BBC has a good introductory series of three programmes called Pain, Pus and Poison but they keep being removed from YouTube for copyright reasons so you will need to search Youtube to find one that currently works; also be aware that the clips on the BBC itself may not be available to non-UK residents.

Public Broadcasting Service, PBS, has produced a series of videos called   Rx for Survival - A Global Health Challenge. These are a co-production from the WGBH Education Foundation and Vulcan Productions, Inc. largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They emphasise how drugs and vaccines are helping to overcome the international challenges faced by disease and poverty.

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