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Reuters Nails Pharma Jobs Frustration But Misses On Biologics, Small Molecules

This AM, Reuters released a special report about the state of drug R&D. Overall, I enjoyed reading the piece. Though there isn’t a whole lot in there that C&EN’s readers who work in the area won’t already know, I think the article does a great job of capturing how scientists- and young scientists in particular- feel about their job situation. The folks quoted in the article are feeling more than a little frustrated.

That said, there were a couple of statements in this article that were unfair, misleading, or downright pessimistic. In the section on biotech, we have this generalization:

Biotech’s “large molecule” protein drugs, made using genetic engineering, have proven superior at fighting complex diseases like cancer to many conventional “small molecule” chemical drugs.

That argument is a little hard to swallow. You might say that the side effects from a protein drug are more benign than those of traditional chemotherapies like 5-fluorouracil. And Herceptin, a biologic drug, has made a big difference for women with a specific type of cancer. But what about Gleevec? If you have cancer driven by a certain genetic mutation, Gleevec works-and it’s a small molecule.

Look closely at Herceptin or Avastin-a biologic cancer drug the Reuters article mentions in its next paragraph- and you’ll notice that for treating some cancers they must be taken with small molecules- carboplatin, paclitaxel, or something else. Both parts of the treatment- the small molecule and the protein- are necessary for the treatment to work its best.

Maybe cancer isn’t the best example- after all, every cancer is a different challenge. What about other diseases? In the past, we’d written about how biologic drugs are the best we’ve got for multiple sclerosis. Humira, a biologic treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, is another success story that the Reuters article mentions.

But what about HIV? There are an awful lot of small molecules on this list of approved HIV drugs, and when used correctly, they keep the disease at bay for years.

Yes, there’s some wiggle room in the Reuters statement because of the use of the word “many”. Maybe it’s the organic chemist in me speaking, but I get pretty miffed when I hear pessimistic statements about small molecules.

A smaller nitpick but a nitpick nonetheless- the article seems to use the words “biotech” and “biologic” interchangeably, which might confuse someone who isn’t familiar with the area.

By 2014, the world’s two top-selling prescription drugs won’t be tablets sold in blister packs but needle-based biotech treatments — Avastin for cancer, sold by Roche, and Humira for rheumatoid arthritis, from Abbott Laboratories — according to consensus forecasts compiled by Thomson Reuters.

Lastly, I wish the article hadn’t ended back in an academic setting. Instead, I would’ve liked to hear more about the scientists who migrated to Parexel, the company that conducts clinical trials for drugmakers. That academic ending was a downer to me- it represents a narrow-minded view about what the skills of a scientist trained to work in pharma are good for.

Just A Quick Note

Posting might be irregular here for the next day or two, as Lisa and I are in the midst of C&E News’s advisory board meeting. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few links of interest.

Derek Lowe discusses Two Bad Ideas for remedying the pharma employment situation

via @EricMilgram on Twitter, Pfizer warns of 50 layoffs in Durham, North Carolina

Silence Therapeutics extends by one year its deal with AstraZeneca to develop methods of delivering drugs based on RNA interference.

Underemployed at Big Pharma?

An article this week in the NYTimes got me wondering about the work prospects for the tens of thousands of scientists laid off by big pharma. The piece profiled several of the so-called “underemployed”—people who in a dismal labor market took jobs for which they were overqualified.

A few years back, I followed a group of chemists that lost their jobs when Bayer decided to close the doors of its New Haven, Conn., campus as they searched for new employment. The take away was that it was a snap for folks with a masters degree—or “hands to make molecules”—to find a job, but much tougher for mid-career scientists to find positions. Nearly every PhD ended up leaving the state, and all but three went to biotech firms. At least they found jobs.

That was in 2007. Just three years later, I’m wondering how much worse it has gotten out there. The mega-mergers (Pfizer/Wyeth, Merck/Schering-Plough, Roche/Genentech) and the arrival of the patent cliff have prompted a fresh round of research cuts across all of the major players. In theory, this would mean there are even fewer jobs out there and more people looking for ‘em. And with financing tight, it has gotten harder to get the funds to start-up a new venture.

For biotechs looking to hire, the employment glut is obviously a boon. When I interviewed the folks at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forma Therapeutics in December, it was clear that it is a great time to be in an expansion mode. And Joseph Gardner, the CEO of Akebia, a tiny company that was borne out of the ashes of P&G’s pharma unit, told me during the JPMorgan Healthcare conference in January that he had opened a satellite office in Ann Arbor, Mich. The move was solely to accommodate four ex-Pfizer scientists that were affected by the closure of the research site there. I’ve heard similar stories from many small- and medium-sized biotechs.

Still, it seems the companies adding significant numbers of researchers are few and far between (a situation underscored in our recent story about the lack of jobs in California). The Times piece talks about mid-level managers taking significant steps back in their career to stay in their field, or even ending up at Starbucks. What I’m wondering is whether most biotech or pharma companies will even consider letting someone come in so many levels below where they left off and, if so, whether that arrangement can actually work out. Or are folks looking into new careers? If so, what’s out there? Leave your thoughts in the comments or, if you’re shy, feel free to email me.