Life in big pharma

My dream job used to be to work in a big pharmaceutical company, to be part of the process where drugs are created and produced, to have a role in making life better for patients worldwide. I was lucky to get into a big pharma company as an assistant scientist right out of university. I had not even done my PhD then, I was a freshly minted graduate with hardly any prior work experience aside from internships.

It was very impressive to be part of such a big multinational company. Everything had a process. We even used Lotus Notes at the time. There were E-Learning courses, orientations, safety briefings, lab tours. Equipment was state of the art and built for high-throughput. There was ample support and funding in the early years. I was a junior scientist yet was given the responsibility of setting up a pharmacokinetics lab with my young team leader boss. We were a small site with few people, and functioned very much like a biotech to begin with. Slowly we built up the processes needed for running pharmacokinetic screens, then we were screening compounds shipped to us like pros on speed. It was a good environment, great people, reasonable pay and working hours.

After two years it started getting routine. I was just repeating processes over and over. We grew bigger though and now we had our own chemists making compounds. People came and people left. Projects got started, cut, transferred, whole sites were sometimes shut down. There was never any clear explanation, just people following orders. My boss still looked out for me though, I got sent on training courses, I pursued a part-time Masters when I got too bored of the routine. And soon, I left.

It was not the dream job I had in my mind. In all four years I spent there, I do not think I aided in the making of any drug that went into the clinic. Yet it was time spent, and work done, screening and screening. I suppose if I was a senior scientist, which I was almost becoming, just one promotion away, I may have played a bigger role. But looking at my senior scientist colleagues, and even team leaders, they never seemed to have a clear vision or goal, they appeared lost at times.

My observations just mirror what is going on in the pharma industry. The patent cliff has left the big players scrambling to push newer drugs into the market. The failure to produce enough new drugs to support the large scale of big pharma operations derive from a multitude of reasons. The first being just the obvious inefficiency of the current approach, which involves finding a single target that may alter a disease response, screening a large bunch of compounds, making chemical modifications to improve pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics while ensuring no toxicity ensues, and if there are still valid candidates left to put them through human trials (which may not be completely well-designed) and hope to see sufficient efficacy and safety. This whole process can cost more than a billion dollars and take 10 years or more. Added to this, the nitty gritty details of problems encountered in assay development, drug interaction effects, the cost and obstacles one can encounter chemically synthesizing the compound.. it all adds up to a big giant UGH. Added to this major reason, are other issues like increasing stringency of FDA approval regulations, variability in human patient responses, difficulties finding the right biomarkers (especially when it comes to neurodegenerative disease) to measure patient responses, problems encountered when transitioning from animal to human models, and so on and so forth.

Obviously, we need a better way of doing things. Life in big pharma used to be safe, but it is not any longer. And innovation and creativity is harder in big companies which is why we are seeing a rise in biotech investments. I work in a biotech now, and life is indeed different, but that is another story for another day.


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