My post the other day on Phil Baran’s public-private funding ideas brought in a lot of comment. As usual, I encourage a look a the comments section if you’re interested in the topic, or any topic that comes up around here – a lot of people who know whereof they speak show up. But I wanted to follow up on a response that I got through email, from an experienced organic chemistry professor. He says that it’s gotten harder and harder for him to do any such partnerships with pharma, so I asked him for details. Here (with permission) is most of his email:
* In the past, pharmaceutical companies had more projects related to families of natural products (corticosteroids, betalactams, macrolides, prostaglandines) and the complex chemistry involved encouraged long term collaborations with academic groups. It seems now that companies want academics to just make new scaffolds or molecules for testing and this is less conducive to the discovery of new chemistry.* Automation has limited the number of chemical reactions that are of use to medicinal chemists. Furthermore, the “designers” in the West are dumping more and more of the synthetic burden (e. g. synthesis of a new scaffold to feed the robots) on the shoulders of chemists in China and India. Interestingly, however, automation has at the same time created a demand for late stage modifications and spurred a revival of “C-H functionalisations” and redox radical chemistries building on the Minisci reaction. So perhaps more long term collaborations will arise on this front.* I have personally found that problems from “process and development” were more focused and often pin-pointed to gaps in synthetic methodology (hence a source of interesting research problems). Medicinal chemists in “discovery” tend to design compounds they can make; if they can’t, they think of another structure, an option not available to process chemists. There is therefore less pressure to come up with new chemistry or to ask people in academia to solve a particular problem (exception: the late stage modification discussed in the previous bullet).* I very much regret the disappearance of “Central Research” from large diversified companies such as Dupont. I do not understand these decisions. Funding such laboratories only consumes a small fraction of R&D budgets, but the long term benefits are enormous. Furthermore, chemists in such “laboratories” had a broader view of chemistry and would scout the whole of academic research programmes in search of ideas and inspiration. This resulted in tighter (and healthier) contacts between industrial and academic chemists and more long term collaborations. . .* There is also the question of the diminishing importance of “small molecules” as drugs and whether this is diminishing the interest of pharmaceutical companies in collaborating with hard core organic chemists.“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…” I suppose that the pendulum will swing back at some point. . .