Synthetic versus Medicinal Chemists

I had an interesting discussion with a former colleague over the weekend. His new company (well, new-ish, he’s been there a while) actively separate their medicinal and synthetic chemists, giving each an equal weighting in the project hierachy.

To say this is in contrast with most of my own experience would not be an understatement. Traditionally, the role of synthetic and medicinal chemist has been a joint one, with the chemist wearing the appropriate hat/lab coat as needed. Indeed, my current position puts this explicitly, as my official title here at RTI is “synthetic organic/medicinal chemist”. In many ways this makes sense, as it takes a lot less time to come up with the idea for a molecule than to actually make it, so a chemist can spend that little while in the library drawing up a plan of action, then spend the next much longer while putting that plan into action, revising the plan and hopefully coming up with the compounds for testing that can start the cycle over again.

The balance between medicinal chemistry and synthesis is of note though, because for the most part companies hire synthetic chemists and turn them into med chemists, brought up in their philosophy. And while the syntheses can take a while, for the most part they get done and it is the biological part that causes all the problems in getting the compound into the clinic and ultimately to the market place. So the skills and knowledge of the medicinal chemist are more valuable because it is those that will give the project success in the end. The thinking here is that a thorough grounding in synthesis will prepare you for those challenges in the lab, so you can now dedicate your learning to the issues of assays, pharmacokinetics, toxicology and other such obstacles to success.

So getting back to my old colleague who is incidentally working in Europe rather than in the U.S. How exactly it works, I am not entirely clear. You have a project medicinal chemist and a project synthetic chemist head, leading a team of chemists, mostly BS level, who do the compound generation. If compounds don’t get made, it is the synthetic half’s problem; if they aren’t active, it is the med chemist’s problem. In some ways, I like the separation of the two, especially as a (mostly) synthetic chemist, so work done in making a molecule is seens as a success even if the work was on something that eventually found to be inactive. And it frees the medicinal chemist into a full-on ideas-and-analysis mode, where he does not have the distraction of a troublesome reaction to prevent him looking over the PK profiles.

It occurred to me that this move by my colleague’s company might be a preview of a future business model where the synthetic work is done where such work can be done cheapest and the analysis of the results is done by specialists – who could be anywhere, since data can flow freely. Something to think about.


3 comments on “Synthetic versus Medicinal Chemists

  1. Eric Milgram says:

    Interesting post. I’ve always thought of medicinal chemists as really good synthetic chemists with a good awareness of the biological implications for the molecules they design (e.g. bioavailability, tox, solubility, etc). At the pharma companies where I have worked, the vast (probably more than 95%) of medicinal chemists were formally trained synthetic chemists who learned the “medicinal” part on the job.

    Personally, I only know of one instance in a pharma company where a formally trained “medicinal chemist” was working as a “medicinal chemist.” I always wondered where people who got “medicinal chemistry degrees found jobs.

  2. Shankar says:

    As someone with 20+ years at Merck, I can say with confidence that we all start as synthetic organic chemists (initially hired as one) and over years “acquire” that medicinal chemistry expertise. A point also mentioned by other blogger. It is my humble opinion that they go hand in hand and I among others at Merck have balanced these two branches. During my years, I have observed that the quality of synthetic chemists coming off the college these days, do not have the rigor/expertise that some of us went through. A thesis on C-C, C-N (bond formation) chemistry that involves ligand and catalyst design won’t cut it. The art of drug discovery which in essence is to “keep it simple” and I am really worried for the present day chemists!

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