Published: 15.08.11

Nitroglycerine – a blessing for mankind

Ursula Quitterer, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology, regards the discovery of antibiotics as one of chemistry’s great achievements. She says chemistry needs more creative lateral thinkers to develop new medicines.

Interview: Peter Rueegg
Ursula Quitterer, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at ETH Zurich and at the University of Zurich (Photo: U. Quitterer / ETH Zurich)
Ursula Quitterer, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at ETH Zurich and at the University of Zurich (Photo: U. Quitterer / ETH Zurich) (large view)

What do you consider to be chemistry’s biggest achievement or most important discovery?
As a pharmacologist, I assess chemistry’s discoveries in relation to their importance for the development of essential life-saving medicines. In this respect, the discovery of antibiotics, especially penicillin, was one of the biggest achievements of the last century. The epoch-making significance of penicillin-like antibiotics is reflected in the sudden lengthening of life expectancy that was made possible by this class of chemical agents.

What do you deal with in your research, and how will it affect or benefit our everyday lives?
My work group’s research in molecular pharmacology is focused on studying active ingredients and action mechanisms to treat cardiovascular diseases – the most frequent cause of death in industrialised countries. Medicines which inhibit the angiotensin system and which are used to treat cardiovascular diseases are now among the most frequently employed therapeutic agents. Our research contributes to a better understanding of the mode of operation of this system, which is currently the most important target for medicines, to enable drugs to be deployed even more effectively in the fight against high blood pressure, heart attack and heart failure.

What fascinated you about chemistry?
For a pharmacologist, chemistry is an apparently boundless opportunity to design and synthesise potential new active ingredients and medicines. The fact that chemistry was often “ahead of its time” is especially fascinating. The majority of the medicines and groups of active ingredients that have been successfully deployed to date were isolated or synthesised and developed in collaboration with pharmacologists long before fundamental biological research was able to explain the associated targets and target structures.

Which areas of research in chemistry will be particularly important in the future, and why?
Again, as a pharmacologist, my answer is subjective. In spite of all medical advances, the medicines currently used to treat the most common fatal illnesses – cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory tract diseases or neurodegenerative diseases – are inadequate. Here there is an urgent need for new active ingredients and reference substances, which can only be solved by creative lateral thinkers in the chemical sciences.

Which chemical concept should everyone be aware of by the end of the International Year of Chemistry, and why?
Nitroglycerine – it is the main constituent of dynamite developed by Alfred Nobel and, for over 100 years, it has been a life-saving medicine for the treatment of angina.