Academic research and industrial drug discovery have always been on separate paths, but my impression is that the two understand each other better now than they have at any time during my career. That’s in no small part due to the number of industrial scientists who have moved into academia (itself in no small part due to the employment turmoil in the industry). Here’s a perspective from James Barrow (ex-Merck) on what it’s like to make just that move, and it’s interesting reading. There are already guides for academics who are thinking of getting into industry, but not so many in the opposite direction.
If you’re going to continue to do work that bears on drug discovery (which is what many people in this situation will of course be doing), you’ll have to find a way to set up collaborations. A well-equipped industrial setting has its own permanent departments and specialists: you know, for example, that there will come a time when someone will need to investigate the best way to formulate a lead compound for dosing in an animal model, and by gosh, there are formulations people who specialize in just that, in the same way that there are people who specialize in keeping the animal facility itself running smoothly, and people whose expertise is the collection and analysis of the blood samples from those animal experiments, and so on. All of these are full-time jobs in a large industrial setting, and the people involved get quite good at what they do, but only the largest universities will have anything like that in place. The article recommends that newly transitioned industrial scientists make themselves as visible as possible, as quickly as possible, to attract collaborators.
Another thing to get used to is the overall speed of the work. One factor is that you’re also going to be training students, a wide variety of them, and a person has to internalize that fact that they’re no longer working in an environment where everyone involved on the project knows pretty much what they’re doing because they’ve done it before, etc.
The resources available for drug discovery in academic laboratories are more limited than found in pharma. This often limits the pace and throughput through the traditional drug discovery cycle, thereby necessitating careful selection of assays for maximum impact on the project. Laboratories can mitigate this disparity by use of core facilities, judicious outsourcing, and collaborations that often bring unique capabilities and data sets to a project. While collaborations can greatly enhance the resources available to a project, care must be taken to set expectations about how many compounds can be tested by a collaborator and what the turn-around time will be. Nothing is more frustrating for a medicinal chemist than completing the synthesis of a tough analog that will set the direction of future chemistry efforts, only to have to wait months for data.
Indeed. Moving to a nonindustrial environment will really bring into focus how many things you might have been taking for granted – for example, that it used to be someone else’s job to optimize an assay, etc. Barrow also addresses another factor that can show up:
Academic laboratories are generally rewarded for innovative research published in prestigious journals by additional grant funding and prominent lectures. This lessens the motivation to rigorously test key assays for reproducibility, especially critical in vivo experiments. In an academic drug discovery setting, these in vivo experiments are often done by collaborators who need extra reminding about rigorous protocols including randomization, blinding, and appropriate controls. . .Academic scientists who have spent years, sometimes decades, studying a particular disease process are often reluctant to do the “killer” experiment.
And while I’m sure that that’s not always true, I’ve also seen that exact effect in a couple of academic collaborations that I’ve been involved with. My guess is that working in industry, you get used to the way that there’s always another project coming along. The one you’re on now will work, or perhaps not work, and then you’ll move on to the next one, because that’s what you do. But for an academic lab, working on that single project (broadly defined) may in fact be “what they do”, and in extreme cases a go/no-go experiment might be seen as more of a threat than an exciting opportunity. (In a different way, I caught myself doing that in the last stages of my own PhD work – I was nervous about finishing up, and was finding ways to do other stuff and run other experiments rather than get down to the crucial things that would get me out).
I’m sure that there will be academic scientists who will take exception to Barrow’s comments above. It’s not like everyone is turning out sloppy work, of course, but it is true that the incentives are different. Keep in mind that when an interesting result or phenomenon is found in an industrial setting, it generally gets hammered on pretty quickly from several different angles to make sure that it reproduces, and under what conditions. No one will (or no one should!) continue to put effort into a project unless it can stand up to a good shaking of that sort. After all, a preclinical industrial drug effort is aimed at making a decision to spend a very large amount of money to give your new therapy to other human beings, in the hopes that it will perform well enough that large numbers of people will eventually be motivated to give you money for it. A large, competent, and skeptical group of outside observers (the FDA and other agencies, for starters, and then the broader medical community) will be inspecting your work. You will be filing legal documents to protect it, and if there are major mistakes or gaps in those, motivated competitors and their motivated lawyers will come after you. Even without such problems, those same competitors will be using your compounds in their own assays and projects, in well-funded attempts to do better than you did and persuade people to give them their money instead of giving it to you. If you missed something bad about your drug and it makes it to market anyway, so many lawsuits will come down around you that you’ll think it’s snowing. The whole atmosphere is rather more. . .Darwinian.
So as Barrow mentions, the attitudes and weltanschauungen (OK, he doesn’t use that word) that industrial scientists bring to academia can be rather orthogonal. But that can be a good thing, properly managed. Some people on the academic side might find it annoying, but others will find it invigorating (and that goes for the personal experience of the transitioning industrial researcher, too!) The article is a good intro to what to expect, and how to start arranging things so that you have the greatest chances for success. Remember, everyone in the drug industry came from academia in one form or another (grad students and post-docs at the very least). Having people move from industry back into the universities is a real opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.