Saturday, May 15, 2010

Antibiotics - choosing a career.

Why did I leave the security of academia to work in the pharmaceutical industry?  I get this question a lot, especially from students and post-doctoral fellows.  I was a tenured professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University.  I had ample grant funding and a moderate size research laboratory working on bacterial resistance to antibiotics. I liked clinical medicine to which I devoted about 25% of my time.  Why give that up?

First, the university isn’t as secure as many think it is. Tenure doesn’t necessarily mean anything practical.  In my case, tenure in the department of medicine guaranteed little in terms of actual salary support should I lose my position for one reason or another. Politics can make things difficult (not an issue for me).  Applying for grant funding constantly is no fun.  My last year or so, I applied for 11 different grants of which four were funded.  Writing was becoming almost a full time job. 

Luckily, two of those grants, along with my full time appointment at the Veterans Administration medical center, allowed me to undertake my second sabbatical year in France working with Pr. Laurent Gutmann.  The project we designed involved a multi-laboratory collaboration including facilities and scientists at Smith Kline Beecham outside of London where I was also consulting at the time. 

I fell in love with that style of research. Every lab contributed something different and complementary to the research.  The project was a priority at some level for all the participants. The key ingredient was the technology supplied by our pharmaceutical company partners that underpinned all of the experiments for the entire endeavor.  We would travel back and forth from Paris to London with our samples (bacterial extracts – not dangerous – not to worry), or we would send them by courier when necessary.

After my year in Paris, I returned to my lab in Cleveland.  Within just a few months, I came to recognize something I think I had always known but ignored.  In collaborative projects in academia, your project is almost never your collaborator’s highest priority.  Their interest is focused on their own grants and projects first. I also found that gaining access to the technology I used at Smith Kline Beecham in Cleveland was going to be a major undertaking requiring another round of grant submissions just to fund the purchase of the equipment.

At the same time, I had been receiving calls from headhunters looking to place me or someone like me in executive research positions in pharmaceutical companies.  I was being pursued seriously for two positions, one in a rather new biotech company in Boston and the other at Wyeth.  This coincidence of events forced me to carefully examine what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and how I would get there.  I chose Wyeth and worked there for the next six years.

Every grant I wrote (almost) had a sentence stating that if only we had the results from the experiments I was proposing, we would be able to use this new understanding to design new antibiotics active against resistant bacteria. But after 16 years of writing these grants, I was no closer to having anybody actually use my data to design a new antibiotic.  Why?  Because I didn’t know the first thing about what it took to design or discover a new antibiotic.  In reflecting on this reality, I came to understand that I could accomplish a number of very desirable goals only within the context of the industry.  I think that, mostly, this is still true.

  1. I could materially contribute to the discovery, development and delivery to the marketplace of new antibiotics active against resistant bacterial pathogens.
  2. I could participate in collaborative research where the project was everyone’s priority.
  3. I would have access to the latest in technology to achieve defined research objectives.

For me, all of this came true.  I’ve never looked back.  Don’t get me wrong, working in the pharmaceutical industry, large and small, is no walk in the park (especially large pharma).  There are numerous downsides that I will explore in some future blog.  But to me, it all was and remains extremely rewarding.

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