Have you ever wondered how professors can make a difference? It’s true that a lot of their impact is in the classroom or lab, but there are other ways, too. Read on to learn more about the ways that Dr. Chris Cunningham leverages his expertise to serve his students and the greater community.

Establishing a Solid Foundation in the Sciences

Dr. Cunningham is originally from the Washington D.C. area, and he completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland in College Park. First, he studied Chemistry and German, but then he went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. This is where he first began researching opioid analgesics, a class of medications.

After that, Cunningham worked at the University of Kansas as a postdoctoral researcher, where he joined the Specialized Chemistry Center and the Department of Medicinal Chemistry. Here, Cunningham was able to research opioids and hallucinogens.

Dr. Cunningham first came to Concordia University in 2011. When explaining his current work in the School of Pharmacy, Cunningham gave a helpful distinction between what his pharmacology colleagues emphasize versus what he studies: “These two subjects work together. Pharmacology asks, ‘What drugs do?’ whereas medicinal chemistry asks, ‘What drugs look like?'”

Understanding Drugs to Make a Difference

Cunningham has been able to use his expertise in order to make a difference in the lives of his students. In fact, one of his favorite parts about his job is that he regularly teaches students something brand new. He said, “I get to teach budding pharmacists to apply chemistry to how they act and use this to better treat patients. I am guaranteed to be teaching these students things they don’t know or have never thought of.” 

Cunningham wants to ensure that his students have a strong grasp on how opioids work so they can better understand how these drugs may affect the people they serve.

Americans have been hearing the term “opioid crisis” since the 1980s, and many people have a connection to someone struggling with the use of opioids. In fact, the opioid crisis hit a new level back in 2015 when the average life expectancy for Americans decreased for the first time since World War I.

Serving the community through advocacy

When it comes to the general public and the use of opioids, Cunningham emphasizes the importance of listening to your care team. This includes pharmacists, doctors, and all trained medical staff.  “We train pharmacists and doctors to be really educated on drugs.” he says, “Your pharmacist is your go-to person to talk to if you have questions about your medication.”

Cunningham is dedicated to making a difference not only at the patient level but also on a political scale.  “Once per year, I travel to Capitol Hill to talk to elected officials to help them create legislation that would be useful to understand the opioid crisis,” Cunningham says. 

“We also advocate for more funding to support research of substance use disorders,” Cunningham continued. “We want to educate legislators on the challenges facing research on controlled substances. It’s important for researchers to have access to controlled substances so we can help law enforcement and first responders when new psychoactive substances arrive on the streets. For example, we’re seeing new synthetic opioids creep up and cause more individuals to die. Academic scientists can help understand how these drugs work so we can design the right treatments to help individuals.”

Cunningham’s influence doesn’t end here.

Ongoing Research on Opioids

Cunningham has been conducting research with colleagues around the world, from Johns Hopkins University all the way to New Zealand. One goal is to develop a non-addictive analgesic. “We’re thinking about using opioid compounds in a different way; could we design agents that take away the rewarding effects of opioids from their analgesic effects? And while we are at it, could we also block the rewarding effects of other drugs of abuse, like alcohol and cocaine?” They also aim to find out what causes someone to become tolerant to morphine. Cunningham and his colleagues are asking simple questions like, “Why does this happen? How can we slow this process down?” with their work. Although the questions are simple, the science is complex.

Cunningham’s work, although very scientific, is rooted in serving the community. He notes, “We’re concerned about the next wave of drug abuse and overdose deaths, and we’re seeing a rise in cocaine and meth-related overdoses. Substance abuse disorders obviously affect people worse when they can’t get treatment. During the pandemic, mental and behavior services have been limited. This hit the homeless community hard, and overdose deaths increased significantly.”

Preparing Students for a Variety of Destinations

When talking about Concordia’s Pharmacy program, Cunningham said, “We’re training students for more than one path. A lot of our pharmacists do work in retail, but there are other options out there. You can work in hospitals, industry, and clinical trials; you can do research. They get an amazing experience and are well-prepared for success in lots of places.”

Pharmacists have career opportunities that go far beyond the pharmacy and retail settings. They play a pivotal role in filling careers in public health, community clinics, and more.

Pharmaceutical scientists help pharmacists understand the basics of a drug

New medications and drugs are constantly being developed and available to patients and consumers, and they can come from various sources. Medications derived from cannabis are now available in forms that were not just a year ago.

“With cannabidiol (CBD) and medical marijuana being all over the place, pharmacists need to know more about it,” Cunningham said. “The first FDA medication that was isolated from cannabis was just released last year. New products are flooding the market, so those of us on the Pharmaceutical Sciences side help train the new pharmacists to understand these drugs.”

Concordia’s students are equipped with the tools to thrive in both traditional and nontraditional settings. The School of Pharmacy’s strong faculty pursues excellence in the way they prepare students.

Feeling Inspired?

Dr. Cunningham’s work is evidence that there is a lot of heart and soul in studying science, and there are countless ways you can serve your community through the sciences. If you’re ready to take the next step in pursuing your education at Concordia’s School of Pharmacy, you can book a call with one of our admissions counselors.