There have been big changes in the world of drug discovery, even ignoring the upheavals in the world in general. Not too many years ago, combinatorial chemistry was the Future and everyone was getting in on the act. The fever over that broke and now it has taken its place in the tool box for drug discovery.
What happened next is that companies started to move their research overseas, where a lot of qualified people were waiting to work for much much less than their equivalents in the United States. Regular library and custom synthesis work is done in China and India (and other places). Companies are springing up to do medicinal chemistry and other early stage drug discovery research. Large companies are building their own facilities in those countries. With mergers and acquisitions occurring here, leading to lay-offs for American scientists, what is the future for research here in the U.S.A. and for my own field in particular?
This is a tough time to be a medicinal chemist looking for a job in the U.S. right now, although that is true for many industries and specialties. A lot of companies are tightening belts and trying to save to survive. That is to be expected in a down turn. However, it is my belief that this will not continue for the long term. Companies cannot save to grow, they need a well-fed pipeline. So I do think that research will pick up again. But I also think it will not be quite the same again.
After Pfizer merged with Wyeth, the new company announced their R&D would operate as two entities under one umbrella, a small molecules side and a biologics side. This reflects the growth in the biologics side of the business, its increase in importance. That also might be seen as bad news for the makers of the small molecules. It does take resources away from the chemists (who are not going to be the ones making those large molecules), but drug companies must go after actives. Plus, pre-clinical drug discovery is relatively cheap. Making series of small molecules is not free, but compared to the costs of putting one compound through a clinical trial, it is a minor expense. Thus efforts will continue to find active compounds with appropriate properties to be taken into a clinical setting.
Of course, the question becomes where will this research be carried out? The number of facilities world wide suggest that more will go overseas. I do agree that more research for and on behalf of big pharmaceutical companies will be outsourced, plus biotech companies will focus their efforts on what they do best (the biology) and bring in outside help when they want the chemical probes to plug into their assays and models. However, I do not think that the majority of medicinal chemistry will be sent overseas. Some will, undoubtedly, and library synthesis and custom resynthesis can and will be done efficiently abroad, but the intellectual property issues over an ongoing drug discovery effort will keep such collaborations closer to home.
The reasons I have for this assertion are several-fold. The first and the one that has kept it here up till now is that I.P. argument, keep the research in the same country, it keeps the legalities over confidential disclosures more straightforward. A second argument ties into the idea of a research project like this as a collaboration, a free exchange of insights between scientists. This is best achieved by people close in time-zone, not to mention language. It is not impossible to negotiate multiple hour time zone differences, but it creates a lag. The final piece for me is that the cost of labor in India and China is increasing. It is not up to American levels by any means, but it is increasing and one cost of the down turn here is that people are more willing to settle for a little less here too. Thus the gap between the two work forces is narrowing and the pay off for outsourcing overseas becomes less.
As I said already, I do not anticipate big pharma rehiring thousands of scientists in the next few years. Some, surely, but not to a great extent. What I do expect to see is a growth of support and service companies providing the research they need on a contract basis, not just in medicinal chemistry but in other related drug discovery efforts also. I expect companies to hire a lot more short term, contract-to-permanent, a development I have already seen. This will reflect their business – they need people while they have contracts, they don’t when they have none. Individuals and companies will build upon their reputations – will sink or swim on those reputations in fact. Effective employees will be taken full-time. Trusted companies that consistently deliver results will be retained in longer term contracts.
It makes for a much more fluid environment. Competitive and adaptable entities will thrive. It will be up to each of us as scientists to be versatile enough to survive.