Organic Chemistry is a beautiful science. It is famously difficult, the “weed out” class for pre-medical students everywhere, and this semester has taught me exactly why. It is a science that requires a particular kind of continuous knowledge, applied together in the assembly of functional chemical compounds. To understand organic chemistry is to understand a particular set of tools that are used to create highly specific, exotic chemicals out of cheap and common starting materials. The process is often arduous, but the fruits of this labor are the fuels and medicines that shape our lives today. There is good reason people have put such work into developing our understanding of this science.
I have been lucky to associate some of this science with my work on the road. These studies have taught me about the importance of detail. To know a thing is to understand how and why it behaves the way it does, to understand it from every angle. This kind of scientific intimacy brings to light exactly how delicate our tools are, and how specifically they are engineered.
Above is a drawing of the chemical structure of epinephrine. These specific orientations of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen might seem like unnecessary detail, but this structure holds within itself a real power. My studies have taught me how to pull that flat drawing out into three dimensional space, to give life to that compound and make it real.
That drawing above isn’t just epinephrine. It is more specific than that. The forward orientation of the hydroxyl group (the “OH” near the top) is particular to this form of the compound, and is specifically named (R)-(-)-Epineprhine, or Levo-rotary Epinephrine. This is to differentiate this particular orientation from its isomeric sister: (L)-(+)-Epinephrine (Dextro-rotary Epinephrine) in which the “OH” points in the opposite direction. See, epinephrine has a point of rotation (a point of “chirality”) that enables the molecule to exist with the same chemical formula, but slightly different three-dimensional orientations of the components. The phenomenon is called stereoisomerism, and it is more than just academics. A small change in the three dimensional shape of Epinephrine is what differentiates the biologically active from the not biologically active. Levo-rotary Epinephrine is the vaso-constricting, heart-stimulating, bronchi-dilating drug we are familiar with. Dextro-rotary Epinephrine, however, is essentially inactive. Our bodies, in all their wisdom, produce an enantiomerically-pure product: the levo-rotary epinephrine only.
Stereoisomers such as Epinphrine can be separated into their individual isomers (“enantomers,” in this case), or can be combined together into a mixture. When enantomers are combined together in equal proportions, Organic Chemistry calls the mixture a “racemic” mixture. When we give patients the drug we call “Racemic Epinephrine,” we are actually giving a combination of the active form of Epinephrine mixed with an inactive form of the same chemical compound. This technique has a blunting effect on the potency of the drug, which is the desired effect. I was surprised to learn that the technique we use at my service to perform this treatment is slightly different. We don’t technically administer “racemic” epinephrine because we don’t have dextro-rotary Epinephrine in our drug bags. Instead, we take regular levo-rotary Epinephrine and mix it with saline, achieving the same blunting effect.
The same holds true for our diabetic patients to whom we administer Dextrose. I have been asked in the past why we give dextrose to patients who are hypoglycemic. Organic and stereo chemistry provides the answer. In fact, dextrose IS glucose, just the dextro-rotary isomer of it. (Dextro-rotary + Glucose = Dextrose) The chemical compound is oriented in a specific way, like epinephrine, and it is only this orientation that is synthesized by the body to create energy. It is by convention that we call glucose created outside of the body “dextrose,” and that created inside the body “glucose.” They are both the same thing.
It is all scientific detail. Esoteric, to be sure, but the depth is there for anyone who is willing to look. For a paramedic and pre-medical student such as myself, I find the incredible complexity of these subjects fascinating. To learn about epinephrine and dextrose in this way makes me wonder about everything else we do. There are layers and layers of understanding underneath each of our drugs, underneath our procedures, policies, and practice. We do what we do out of little but faith that there exists science and understanding to provide a foundation for these treatments. We accept our protocols wholesale because we have to, as they are the assimilation of greater minds with greater perspective. To scratch the surface of this knowledge, as I have done in class, does little more than add a sense of humility and wonder for that which I do not yet understand, and to provide a motivation to move forward and learn more.
In the future, I have bigger plans for this surface than a mere scratch.