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May 3, 2010
Volume 88, Number 18
pp. 50 - 52

Biotech Trajectories

Large-molecule research is a warm spot for chemists in today’s chilly job market

Judah Ginsberg, Contributor Editor

Labwork: McAuliffe inspects a fermenter at Genencor. Courtesy of Joseph McAuliffe
Labwork McAuliffe inspects a fermenter at Genencor.
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Christine Ward was going “by the book.” Shortly after receiving a Ph.D. degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, she embarked on what was then a standard career path for an aspiring medicinal chemistry researcher. After completing a posdoc at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 2000, she landed her first job with Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development in San Diego. Ten years later, she’s working for a biotech company. As she and many of her colleagues can attest, “traditional career paths” are a thing of the past.

Ward Courtesy of Christine Ward

Ward was working in her area of expertise, small-molecule medicinal chemistry research at a large pharmaceutical company, when she was caught up in layoffs that were part of a larger cutback at Johnson & Johnson. The competition for jobs wasn’t as stiff in 2005 as it is now, and she got a job with Centocor, J&J’s large-molecule research division. But she had to switch career tracks, moving from small-molecule research to biologics.

And another career switch was coming. While Ward was at Centocor, she was approached by executive recruiter Allison Swartz of search firm Klein Hersh International. MedImmune, AstraZeneca’s biopharmaceutical division, had hired Klein Hersh headhunters to find top candidates to fill a principal research scientist slot in the department of translational sciences.

Swartz contacted Ward, who was intrigued by the position. Swartz connected Ward with MedImmune, and soon thereafter, Ward was off to work for the firm, where she investigates therapeutic antibodies and vaccines.

“The biotherapeutics marketplace is so hot that a lot of companies can’t hire candidates fast enough.”

Ward’s job path indicates an area of opportunity for chemists in what has been a dismal job market. With big pharmaceutical houses laying off thousands of workers—including medicinal chemists—niches remain where chemists can find jobs. One such area is biotechnology, in which the emphasis is on large-molecule research. A move to a biotechnology firm may require retooling on the part of traditionally trained chemists, but as Ward says, “It is easier to make the transition from small molecules to biologics than vice versa.”

Swartz says Ward’s experience is not unusual because companies are willing to train good job candidates depending “on the level of the position or what the key skill set is they are looking for.” She adds, “The biotherapeutics marketplace is so hot that a lot of companies can’t hire candidates fast enough.” Swartz’s boss, Josh Albert, managing partner at Klein Hersh, points out another lesson from Ward’s experience: When big pharmaceutical companies merge with smaller biotech firms, they get the biotech firms’ large-molecule research divisions.

Pharma’s interest in biotech is more than just scientific, it’s financial, says Bruce E. Maryanoff, who recently retired from J&J and is now affiliated with Scripps Research Institute. The prices companies can charge for small-molecule therapeutics are limited, he explains. “There is a big shift now in the pharma business to large-molecule therapeutics because of the much higher margins available on them,” he says.

Most drug discovery these days is being done in small biotech companies while the old-line big pharmaceutical companies are concentrating on development, observes Walter Gilbert, a recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a managing director of the venture capital firm BioVentures Investors. He believes that scientists interested in discovery will “find a much more exciting environment” in biotech.

Friend Courtesy of Stephen Friend

Drug discovery’s move away from traditional pharma companies is a growing trend, and it is not just a function of globalization, although that also plays a role. “Pharmaceutical companies are looking at their basic research efforts and asking if academic groups can do some of this work,” says Stephen H. Friend, president of Sage Bionetworks, a not-for-profit medical research organization.

“A broad and deep transition” is taking place in big pharma, according to Friend, with less research being done inside than outside. Friend says many of the tasks in drug discovery are redundant and can be eliminated. This trend may leave medicinal chemists in the lurch, but it does result in a job market that is “quite varied” and can work to the advantage of those with biotechnology training, he says.

This is not to say that the biotechnology companies have come through the recession unscathed. “Biotech is a business that is long term and represents high risk,” says Alan F. Eisenberg, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which tracks the financial health of the industry. Eisenberg points out that it can take up to 15 years for a product to move from the bench—identifying a biomolecule—to getting Food & Drug Administration approval and starting marketing. “It takes a long time, and it’s a rigorous process,” he says. For every 5,000 biomolecules identified, only one potentially makes it to market.

Beginning in the fall of 2007, Eisenberg says, investors started moving money from high-risk, long-term investments to those with lower risk over a shorter term. As a result, he says, the biotech industry “had a very difficult time” as capital markets closed and investment dried up. In 2008 and 2009, the number of publicly traded biotech companies dropped from 394 to 285. Eisenberg says half of the loss was due to acquisitions, and the other half was the result of bankruptcy.

Signs of revival have appeared recently. Average stock prices have risen. The NASDAQ Biotechnology Index, which underperformed the market in 2009, is ahead of all stocks so far this year, Eisenberg says. Moreover, he notes, “the science has been moving forward even while the markets have been playing catch-up,” with a number of biopharmaceutical firms reporting successes in clinical trials, and some getting government approval for new products.

“Strong science will find financing over time,” Eisenberg says. The key is innovation, a theme struck by Joseph McAuliffe, a staff scientist with Genencor, a division of the biotechnology company Danisco. McAuliffe believes that the job market is “poised to expand significantly over the next decade.” This growth will come not only in biopharmaceuticals, but also in other facets of biotech, such as biofuels and agriculture. The big drivers of this potential growth, he says, are the invention of new technologies and the need to develop more sustainable products and processes. “The way our industrial society has grown is in many ways not sustainable,” he says, but biotechnology may hold the key to creating a more sustainable economy.

Still, biotech remains a risky venture, Klein Hersh’s Albert says. The economic downturn has forced a lot of firms out of business because of a lack of liquidity. These financial realities have made the biotech job market “relatively tight, very competitive,” he says.

Even in the highly competitive area of biologics, there are niches where eager and talented job candidates can find positions. Swartz predicts that “translational research is going to become hotter and hotter” over the next five years, especially as smaller biotech firms shift from discovery into clinical development. In addition, she says, opportunities in oncology and inflammation research will continue.

“The hottest area going is large-molecule-based therapeutics that are directed against specific targets that we’ve learned about from the genome project and modern molecular biology,” says Thomas R. Tritton, president and chief executive officer of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and a longtime observer of the industry.

“Strong science will find financing over time.”

“If you’re really objective,” Tritton adds, “I think you would have to say that the progress coming in treating people with real diseases in that area has been less than the hype.” But he concedes that the field has had some successes, and he has reasons to expect even more in the future. In 2009, FDA granted full approvals to 18 biopharmaceutical products, which was a significant increase over the 10 and 11 that had been approved in the preceding years. Grounds for optimism perhaps, but “it’s not as if new medicines are rolling into the medicine chest in great numbers with great effectiveness because of the modern evolution of biotechnology,” Tritton says.

Eighteen new products is still a low number, and it highlights the lengthy developmental process that all drugs, including biopharmaceuticals, must go through. “That’s all understandable and justifiable to the scientific community,” Tritton says, “but it may not be in the public’s mind.” The slow pace of development could affect future funding for large-molecule discovery and work to the advantage of more traditional small-molecule therapy, which is “easier, and we know how to do it better,” he says.

Harris Courtesy of Tim Harris

Government laboratories appear to be hiring researchers, too, both for medicinal and for large-molecule specialties. Tim Harris, chief technology officer at SAIC-Frederick, a subsidiary of SAIC that operates under a single, long-term contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), says government laboratories still contain “opportunities for good people.” In addition, overall hiring received a boost from the infusion of stimulus money coming from the Obama Administration, he says.

The explosion of data available from genomic research has spurred growth in bioinformatics. David Goldstein, chief of the Office of Science & Technology Partnerships and associate director of the Center for Cancer Research at NCI, says NCI has launched a bioinformatics program and is hiring new people “to analyze the massive amounts of data” generated by genomic research and new DNA-sequencing technologies.

In addition, according to Sage Bionetwork’s Friend, “the tidal wave of raw information” available from medical records and “the emerging ability to carry out genomic assessments” means that a lot of research is now time spent thinking. The results of that thinking, of how the data are analyzed, are “enormously valuable to biotech and pharmaceutical companies,” Friend says. But it also means that chemists have “to think in abstract ways, the way physicists do, and to have the toolkit, the knowledge that statisticians have,” he says.

Most observers who have looked at the job market agree that for traditionally trained chemists to move into biotechnology, they have to be prepared to “expand their skills, and expand the type of disciplines they work with,” says Genencor’s McAuliffe, who speaks from experience. He trained as a synthetic carbohydrate chemist and could have had a career as a medicinal chemist but decided that industrial biotechnology was the area in which he could be most productive the quickest.

Above all, Harris advises job seekers to scope what piece of biotechnology they are interested in before entering the market. Looking at the job market from the perspective, “ ‘Well, I’ve got a biochemistry degree, I need to get into biotech; what kind of jobs are open to me?’ is a less fruitful way to go forward,” he says.

Others echo this advice. The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Tritton says it’s always difficult to counsel young people, but if he would say one thing, it would be “do what you love to do.” This is a piece of advice that Ward appears to have taken when she made the leap into biologics: “They’re just really fun to work with,” she says.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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