Monday, October 3, 2011

Mother of mercy, is this the end of medchem?

Also from today's C&EN, an article from Rich Mullin on where non-profits are stepping into the gap that Big Pharma has left in US medchem funding (emphasis CJ's):
Contract research organizations, or CROs, have a natural tendency to bridge gaps in the landscape of pharmaceutical R&D. As laboratories for hire, CROs have emerged as vital agents in screening compounds, developing synthetic routes, and supporting clinical trials. They provide expertise and infrastructure to virtual drug companies, small biotech firms, and even big pharmaceutical makers that lack necessary resources. Increasingly, though, the research conducted by CROs is being funded by nonprofit foundations and government agencies. The trend reflects a tectonic shift in how drugs are discovered in the pharmaceutical industry. For Western CROs, which are benefiting most from the trend, the new business is helping to offset contracts lost to competitors based in India and China. 
Traditional funders of drug discovery are retrenching, explains Walter H. Moos, vice president of the Biosciences Division of SRI International, a nonprofit research institute and CRO. Venture capital for early-stage drug discovery has been declining since the recession. Major drug companies have become increasingly risk averse, committing to acquire compounds only in later stages of development. And the traditional commercial support for projects crossing the so-called valley of death—the early stretch of the long drug development process—has all but evaporated.
“But nature abhors a vacuum,” Moos says. Nontraditional support is rushing into the space, and governments are doing more of the research that was traditionally the domain of commercial entities. [snip]
...The agency’s [NIH's] Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, encompassing 16 NIH institutes and research centers, is using a similar virtual pharma approach. Several CROs have been awarded contracts to support research. In addition to AMRI, SRI International and Southern Research Institute have been hired to perform drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics screening and other services. “We have solicited applications from small business and academic researchers around the country,” Farkas says. “Successful applicants will be plugged into the network.” 
The agency’s support of early-stage drug development, Farkas says, may reflect a permanent realignment in the field of drug discovery and development as big pharma embraces a streamlined business model. Shifts in the industry, she says, will affect where NIH targets support along the drug discovery and development continuum.
I can't imagine how this is going to end well for US-based medicinal chemists.  Governments and non-profits will be not able to sustain US medchem CROs. NIH cannot possibly keep up the level of support over time; budget pressures will become too great over the coming years and something else will become more pressing.

I lament that it seems that medicinal chemistry has gone from a proud area of research in the late 1990's* to something of a boutique industry, supported by charities and benevolent governments.

Best wishes to all of us.

*If I had to choose one reason I became an organic chemist, it was the story of the Merck HIV protease inhibitors. Considering that, when I was a teenager, I was practically assured that 1 in 3 people I knew would become HIV-positive, the transformation of HIV to a chronic condition seemed amazing and almost entirely due to medicinal chemists. 


  1. These CROs have been around since the late 90s (thinking Discovery Partners et al). Has anything out of one of these organizations made it to a phase 3 study?

  2. I'm working on a PhD at a top-ten R1 and just the other day we were contacted by recruiters from Big Pharma looking for chemists with a medchem focus

  3. A8:32a: That's good news, I think. Glad to hear it. Now what they would be doing is a different question, I suppose.

  4. You're PfizeredOctober 3, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    I have had a couple of things running through my head recently regarding the future of medicinal chemistry here in the US.

    1) The situation feels a bit like the scene in Saving Private Ryan where Mellich and a German solider fight hand to hand, with the German ending up on top of him, slowly pushing his bayonet into Mellich's chest, shushing him as he watches him die.

    2) Remember the game of saying "in bed" after reading your fortune cookie? The new game has you say "in China" after anything related to jobs, growth or career opportunities in pharma.

    Yeah, it's a Monday.

  5. If I had to choose one reason why I got a PhD in organic chemistry, it would be the story of Merck's ivermectin in Africa. Unfortunately, as a fresh PhD in late 2007 I never found a position in drug development, but back then I thought "Wow, I could do such a powerful thing for so many people, too!". The global economy is a harsh reality check , I suppose, for many young, inspired scientists coming of age.

  6. CJ, your comment: "good news, I think.... Now what they would be doing is a different question, I suppose" hits this issue right on the nose.

    Medchem is becoming and will continue to be fundamentally different. The industry is maturing as the world decides that at some point, the cost of new medicines outshadow the benefits of prolonging/improving life. This tipping point will be realized sooner rather than later as pharmaceuticals realize the low risk massive profit potential of marketing generics to developing countries.

    I am a former med chemist who moved into a matured industry which could use my skills. My new industry used to be more like medchem. Lots of happy synthetic chemists in hoods making novel chemical entities to solve problems. Now it is a sad hollow shell of its former glory. The differences are staggering.

    Medchem as we know it today is dying. The only remaining question is how long until medicinal chemistry (as we currently know it) is completely gone.

    My advice is simple. Learn to adapt. It is far simpler than scrabbling for the last stool in a field disappearing to the abyss.