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Career & Employment

September 19, 2005
Volume 83, Number 38
pp. 49-56

Pharma, A Bright Spot In Hiring

Pockets of opportunity crop up in a field that must constantly scope talent

Susan Ainsworth, Contributing Editor

Compared with the traditional chemical sector, the pharmaceutical industry has been fairly resilient in the face of economic hardship. Through these tough times, many pharmaceutical firms have continued to hire chemists for their drug development efforts, albeit at a slow and steady pace.

But now, as other industries begin bouncing back, drug companies will probably continue to bring in new scientific recruits only at these same lackluster levels through 2006, some say. "Pharmaceutical producers' hiring plans will be thwarted by a number of factors, including narrow profit margins, soaring R&D costs, and a number of mergers," observes Richard Kneece, chief executive officer of Massachusetts Technology Corp., which runs a number of Internet job sites including hireRX and hireBio.

But biopharmaceutical firms, he notes, may step up hiring a bit more to keep pace with their burgeoning R&D efforts.

Job seekers, especially those with biochemical expertise, will be able to find pockets of opportunity within a variety of pharmaceutical or biopharmaceutical firms or the companies that supply them with goods or services.

Pharmaceutical-focused firms will remain aggressive in their recruiting efforts. In their quest to reduce drug development timelines and cope with the high attrition rate of drug candidates, companies compete for the best and the brightest scientists adept in the latest techniques and technologies.

Biopharmaceutical firm Scios, for example, is actively hunting for candidates to fill a wide variety of scientific positions, despite expecting its hiring to remain stable through 2006.

8338employ_scope.tifcxd CHIRON PHOTO

FOCUS There is heavy emphasis on chemistry at biopharmaceutical firm Chiron, which has stepped up hiring, particularly of medicinal chemists.

"Even in years when you are predicting hiring to be flat, a company always has to be on the lookout for exceptional talent and for opportunities to bring that talent into its organization," says Dennis Driver, vice president of human resources for Scios. "There's always going to be some level of turnover, and when you make those replacements, you want to have already done your homework and know who would be a good fit for your organization," he adds. "In the best of times and in the worst of times, it still comes down to having the best talent."

Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), the research arm of drug giant Novartis, is also on a mission to bring in scientists "of the highest caliber," says Lynne Cannon, vice president and head of global human resources for NIBR. "We made a conscious decision to staff up in chemistry--not only in basic chemical research but also in our biology areas and drug discovery disease areas--at a different rate than had been typical for Novartis. We recognize that chemists are not only the researchers; collectively, they are the engine. You don't get a drug out without a very strong global chemistry drug discovery effort."

UNLIKE MANY pharmaceutical-focused firms, NIBR has been on a hiring spree since moving its worldwide research headquarters from Basel, Switzerland, to Cambridge, Mass., last year. With a goal of building a staff of 1,500 (1,000 of whom will be scientists) by the end of 2006 in Cambridge alone, it has already hired 1,000 people from all areas from basic research to later stage drug discovery, Cannon says.

The company has been actively recruiting "straight medicinal chemists" who support the different therapeutic areas across the company, says Paul Grafmuller, a director in Novartis' staffing group. In addition, NIBR has been on the prowl for analytical chemists and biochemists at all levels to plug into its discovery technology group, a centralized function that processes assays and compounds throughout NIBR. And the company is also looking for Ph.D.-level lab heads as well as associates with B.S.- or M.S.-level degrees.

Under its global discovery chemistry function, NIBR is seeking chemists who can conduct computer-aided molecular modeling.

They will evaluate new technologies and techniques for processing and screening compounds throughout the development system. These hires, Grafmuller explains, will play a key role in Novartis' effort "to reduce discovery time and pass the baton on to the development function more quickly."

Like NIBR, Scios hopes to find scientists who will help speed drug candidates through its development pipeline. At Scios, the new hires will support research on an emerging family of therapeutic targets that are known as protein kinases. The company has specific clinical development programs focused on p38 MAP kinase and TGF-ß. As control switches for many cellular functions, these protein kinases are especially promising candidates for the development of novel therapeutics to treat a broad array of diseases, according to Driver.

Scios says it is looking to fill research associate positions at many levels, including administrators, program and research managers, biostatisticians, and clinical research directors. In particular, "it has been challenging finding candidates to help support the company's analytical and metabolic processes efforts," Driver comments, adding that he expects that to be an ongoing problem for the foreseeable future because of a possible shortage of qualified individuals.

At biopharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences, drug research and development hiring is up moderately this year, reflecting growth in its research and development program, says William A. Lee, the company's senior vice president of research. "Over the past year, Gilead has expanded its pipeline, with several new drug candidates for HIV and hepatitis C virus being evaluated," Lee adds. In particular, the company has been on the lookout for "talented new scientists at all levels," including medicinal chemists, biochemists, structural chemists, and analytical chemists.

At biopharmaceutical firm Chiron, hiring is also "up a little bit more than in the past," says Rik Kretzinger, the company's senior recruiter for research and development. In formulating its employee mix, "there is heavy emphasis on chemistry at the company," he adds, "and hiring has been largely concentrated in medicinal chemistry." Chemists at Chiron "are doing a lot more of the crunching of data, presenting the chemical compounds so that they can move forward, and doing what it takes to advance into trials."

For example, chemists at Chiron are working more closely with metabolism and toxicology teams at the company, Kretzinger says. Specialists in drug toxicology--who are not necessarily chemists--are particularly difficult to find. "There are a lot of toxicology people who have done ag work, for example, but relatively few who have drug discovery experience. The best ones--those with seven to 14 years of experience--are staying pretty tight with the companies they have been with, such as Merck or Pfizer, and it's hard to get them to move."

FOR NOW, demand may remain strong for a variety of specialists trained to analyze data on absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion, and toxicology (ADME/Tox)--all factors that must fall into place for a biologically active molecule to become a useful drug. With these data, drug firms hope to identify and kill dead-end drug candidates earlier in the drug development process and cut losses.


RAMPING UP Albany Molecular Research is hiring medicinal, organic synthesis, and analytical chemists to meet increased demand for its chemistry services.

"We think we are going to see a surge in the ADME/Tox area over the next 18 months to three years," says Julie Bryant, vice president for business development at St. Joseph, Mich.-based GeneGo. The company develops systems biology technology for life sciences research, including its MetaDrug platform aimed at the ADME/Tox market.

The product predicts the metabolites and interactions for a particular drug structure that might be important in metabolism and toxicology. The software lets scientists make theoretical predictions of metabolites and toxicity as well as incorporate experimental measurements of metabolites from mass spec to visualize preclinical and clinical data in the context of complete biological systems. Until now, Bryant says, researchers could not get this kind of data until much later in the drug discovery cycle "when millions of dollars had already been spent on a compound."

According to Bryant, many of the big pharmaceutical firms--some of which are GeneGo clients--are setting up new departments specifically to support the ADME/Tox effort. As a result, "more jobs are being created in this area." Specialists in computational chemistry and molecular modeling are being retrained to do ADME/Tox work, she observes, as well as "the more computer-inclined bench chemists, and chemists from metabolism groups and pharmacokinetics groups."

While the increasing emphasis on ADME/Tox is spawning new job opportunities, "the numbers aren't going to be huge," especially over the long haul, predicts David G. Jensen, founder and managing director of CareerTrax, a biotechnology and pharmaceutical recruiting firm in Sedona, Ariz. "I've got to warn candidates not to invest too much of their time and training on niche areas like this," he adds. "There have been many new job categories that start out demanding certain specialized skills, but soon those skills evolve into standard techniques that anyone can do. When that happens, if you are so narrow in your experience, your career can be hurt."

For example, "metabolomics--the study of metabolic processes--looks very promising," Jensen says, "but the chemical methodology in this field could be integrated into the standard training regimen for chemists. And remember, each company only needs a small department here." As was the case with computational chemistry, "new specialty areas don't always result in the creation of thousands of jobs, but they do result in the creation of a lot of hype."

However, Jensen says, as new fields grow, chemists would be wise to look for job opportunities within supplier companies that sell specialized products and services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. These firms, whether they sell equipment such as liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry for ADME/Tox applications or reagents, are ramping up because of the overall growth of the biomedical area, he notes.

GeneGo, for example, has been hiring more chemists to support the growth in demand for its products. "We are hiring mostly Ph.D.-level chemists who understand specific targets and classes of compounds that our customers are interested in; they must be able to read the full-text articles and understand the chemistry, reactions, and interactions so that they can enter the information into the appropriate database tables," Bryant says.

Along with supplier companies, some firms that offer contract services to drug discovery companies "are expanding like crazy," fueled by pharmaceutical firms' needs to increase outsourcing of manufacturing and professional jobs in the interest of profitability, Jensen says. As a result, service firms may be fertile ground for chemists wanting to cultivate their career in drug development.

Albany Molecular Research Inc. (AMRI), which provides chemistry services to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, reports that its business is growing both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. As a result, the company anticipates that it will need to step up recruiting for the remainder of 2005 and into 2006 across all areas, says Michael P. Trova, AMRI's senior vice president for chemistry.

IN RESPONSE TO market pressures over the past couple of years, the company recently established subsidiaries in India and Singapore "to allow us to compete more effectively in the international marketplace," says Trova. These subsidiaries will allow the company to address new markets in geographic areas with burgeoning biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, such as Japan, Australia, and the Pacific Rim. The company will continue to hire synthetic organic chemists and analytical chemists, mostly from local markets, to staff its new international locations.

8338employ_chiron.tifcxd CHIRON PHOTO

TEAMWORK At Chiron, chemists are working closely with metabolism and toxicology teams within the company.

In the U.S., demand for the company's services has also been on the upswing. For example, in January, AMRI entered into a two-year research collaboration with Alcon Research to discover and develop ophthalmic pharmaceuticals. A month later, AMRI renewed a pact with Eli Lilly & Co. to provide fee-for-service chemistry research on projects in strategic therapeutic areas identified by Lilly.

"To increase our headcount on the discovery services front, we are actively recruiting for people who will be doing medicinal chemistry for our company," Trova says.

At the same time, AMRI expects to hire organic synthesis chemists and analytical chemists to support the company's chemical development and small-scale manufacturing group, which has seen sales increase over the past few quarters, notes David Albert, AMRI's director of communications. For the most part, that growth reflects the maturation of drug candidates in some of its biotechnology clients' pipelines. "As compounds that had been in earlier stage discovery move into process research and, ultimately, into clinical trials, there is now a greater need for development and small-scale manufacturing services."

As an increasing number of small-molecule drugs begin coming out of the biotechnology sector, new job opportunities will evolve not only within service companies but also within the biotechnology companies themselves, Jensen points out. Process chemists will continue to be in demand, he adds, "because as companies scale up new products in the small-molecule category, they need people who know how to translate the results seen in the lab to the larger scale needed in the pilot plant or manufacturing facility."

Many companies that are involved in drug development are also eager to find "good B.S. or M.S. chemists" who have "a broad range of instrumentation techniques" under their belts, Jensen says. In select niche areas of chemistry, he observes, jobs often go to Ph.D.-level chemists simply because an employer could not find someone with a B.S. or M.S. degree who had the requisite experience.

For example, Jensen continues, "one of my friends has been looking for a B.S.- or M.S.-level chemist to do NMR work in the study of protein structures. He can't really offer the salary range commensurate with a Ph.D., and the job doesn't require all that much 'horsepower,' but it is likely that the job will go to a Ph.D. because B.S./M.S. chemists with specific experience in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are not all that available."

Chemists who want to land a job in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical discovery areas "should be up-to-date on as many instrument platforms--chromatography, NMR, mass spec--as possible," Jensen advises. Many companies will first hire those chemists with experience in a variety of these particular techniques, he adds.

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are also more apt to hire chemists who can demonstrate strong computer skills, notes Massachusetts Technology's Kneece. "In the development of drugs, companies are doing so much more analysis than they did 10 or 15 years ago," he says. So the best candidates will be those with strong statistical skills and experience collecting and manipulating data, he adds.

Following the recall of a series of blockbuster drugs such as Merck's arthritis and acute pain medication, Vioxx, pharmaceutical companies "are much more sensitive and careful about collecting and analyzing data as early as possible in the drug development process so nothing--including negative side effects--gets overlooked," Kneece says.

Having any kind of regulatory- or compliance-related experience also adds to a person's marketability in the drug development arena, he says. As regulatory issues continue to influence corporate bottom lines, "this kind of experience will boost a candidate's career prospects significantly."

Chemists with strong communication skills are also likely to have an edge in the drug development job market. Scios, for one, looks for employees "who can communicate successfully within their function, across functions, and at all levels of the company," Driver says. Businesses may sometimes downplay the importance of communication "because it seems somewhat like motherhood and apple pie, but the reality is that a lot of things can go wrong if organizations are not truly taking the time to ensure that the lines of communication are open. Today, so much depends on collaboration and documentation," he adds, noting that Scios is organized around core development teams that bring together many functions for R&D projects.

For candidates with the optimum skill set, there seem to be plenty of job opportunities within the drug development business. Firms say they need to have their recruiting radar on at all times. Top talent, many agree, is a critical resource in this intensely competitive market. AMRI's Trova says, "We are always looking for the very best people we can find."

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