Thursday, November 19, 2015

Medchem, commodified

In a recent Reddit AMA, Michael Gilman, the CEO of Padlock Therapeutics in Cambridge, opines on the future of medicinal chemistry in the United States:
I would add that, unfortunately, medicinal chemistry is increasingly regarded as a commodity in the life sciences field. And, worse, it's subject to substantial price competition from CROs in Asia. That -- and the ongoing hemmorhaging of jobs from large pharma companies -- is making jobs for bench-level chemists a bit more scarce. I worry, though, because it's the bench-level chemists who grow up and gather the experience to become effective managers of out-sourced chemistry, and I'm concerned that we may be losing that next general of great drug discovery chemists.
I wish I could disagree with any of this, but I really can't.  

25 comments:

  1. so is it better to leave the field alltogether?

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    1. I don't think so, but assuming the trend that Dr. Gilman continues, I cannot imagine the median wages of medicinal chemists will grow significantly faster than inflation.

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    2. yes but if we want higher wages it doesn't look like staying in medchem would help much

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    3. Is it better to eschew the field alrtogether, then, if you haven't already started a position in MedChem or Process? Or would you recommend trying to get in with a startup company instead of one of the big pharma positions? Seems the infusion of young, trainable talent is minimal in large pharma companies and extremely challenging to break into. Considering alternative career paths, such as entering into the patent law arena or business area, of pharmaceuticals seems to be becoming more valuable than ever now.

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    4. I left the field altogether (straight from graduate school-went into patent law) and haven't looked back, nor do I particularly miss it. If you really like the lab aspect, then patent law is probably not your best bet, but if its more the science that excites you then patent law is pretty sweet.

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  2. CJ: Been there and done that! I mean how many times we had discussed on these issues from the time the "bloodletting" of medicinal chemists that started in 2007? May I please remind you of your own rhetorical question (i.e. wisdom) with an example of seasoned pilot with that of freshly minted one during the "crab landing" incidences. We have been rehashing on these issues and nothing seem to happen other than more medicinal chemists let go! It is fair to see the medicinal chemists (or rather organic chemists) are going the way of PChem and other Physics.

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    1. That was a good discussion! http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2011/11/seniority-and-bench-chemistry-why.html

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  3. No worries, pharmers can just get a bunch of MBAs who learned about supply chain management in B school to manage CROs making compounds. Molecules aren't more complex than tube socks, are they? I mean, they're both made of atoms and stuff.....

    As much as I'd like the above quip to be untrue, I'm not convinced it is as much as I'd like it to be. Yes, yes, cue up "but look at how the MBAs have ruined industry X". Eisenhower didn't really spend much time in the trenches, but ended up an OK General.....

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    1. At least Grant lost his soldiers to some purpose. Pharma seems to be run to reward people who get their soldiers killed (like they get a cut of the death benefits) without any other measure of success. It's like they think moving arrows on a board wins a war (because soldiers are expensive, and arrows are cheap).

      If that's the reward scheme, it probably doesn't matter who's running the show. Heck, a computer could do a controlled flight into terrain cheaper than most CEOs.

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    2. "Pharma seems to be run to reward people who get their soldiers killed (like they get a cut of the death benefits) without any other measure of success. "

      The measure of success is increase in stock value every quarter. Shareholders are running the show.

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    3. Doesn't seem like it though - if your CEO gets paid for trashing the stock, you can give him the middle finger on the way to the bank, but not much else. If you're an "activist" shareholder, then it's "roll out the red carpet" time, but other than that, stockholder control seems less than minimal (other than not buying the stock).

      And, if you intend to be there longer than a quarter, your control is less than minimal.

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  4. "At least Grant lost his soldiers to some purpose"

    Presumably had he failed one would say the same about General Lee?

    It seems pretty clear, at least to me, that pharma is run to reward its shareholders with a clear measure of success: ROI. This is how a business should operate.

    Seems to me pharma is not doing too bad: http://finance.yahoo.com/echarts?s=XPH+Interactive#{"range":"10y","allowChartStacking":true}, well outperforming the S&P, at least for the past decade.

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    1. ...until you've finished with the seed corn. And what happens then?

      Grant was specifically different from other Union generals in that he was willing to take losses to gain strategic advantage, while other generals (e.g., McClellan) weren't. Lee didn't have enough people that he could afford to lose - maybe if he'd had enough people, he might have had that rep.

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    2. "until you've finished with the seed corn. And what happens then?"

      You go buy some from the PRC or India.....


      http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/06/16/us-bigpharma-specialreport-idUSTRE65F25Q20100616#sbGkz60Bib1UJzFK.97

      Lots of hand wringing and worry about how horrible pharma productivity was going to be 5 years ago. How's it done since? PPH still nicely outperformed the SPY.


      http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2007/04/30/outsourcing_blues

      A pretty stark, but accurate, view of pharma outsourcing by the good Dr. Lowe.

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  5. Here's Derek Lowe's post on pharma stock performance (from 2014): http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2014/03/27/a_look_back_at_big_pharma_stocks

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    1. There are, I'm pretty sure, > 6 stocks in the pharma industry....

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    2. Considering the mergeritis of the past few years, probably not so many more. And with the overall losses of biotech/small pharma, probably not missing so many of the ones that have made their shareholders happy.

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  6. Hi, everyone. I am the responsible party for the quote in this post, and I apologize for the message it sends to young chemists. But I'm afraid it's true. I don't really have an answer. Although I am not a chemist -- I'm a biochemist, that's close, right? -- I've learned to really love medicinal chemistry and to appreciate the mix of art and science involved in solving the simultaneous equations required to make a safe and effective drug. You want it to be completely rational, but there's a little bit of magic and mystery in it. Drug-hunting cannot be industrialized. It requires a synaptic spark that can only be generated by the human mind -- informed by real-world experience.

    But I think it's also fair to say that synthesis itself is often grunt work. It requires talent, to be sure, but perhaps a different kind of talent. That's why the outsourcing model works -- more or less. Put an experienced, artistic medicinal chemist in charge of a cadre of faceless synthetic chemists in some distant lab and you actually get results. That's why we're all doing it. It's fast, it's cheap, and, most importantly, it keeps your fixed costs low relative to your variable costs (the ones you can dial up and down at will, without having to hire and fire). You don't have to like it -- and, honestly, I don't -- but it's what you have to do to make efficient use of limited capital.

    As I noted in the AMA, though, it's short-sighted, because if pharma and biotech companies are not hiring medicinal chemists, we are not training the next generation of experienced and insightful managers of outsourced chemistry. Classic case of tragedy of the commons.

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    1. Dr. Gilman, I don't think you should feel you need to apologize for saying something that you feel is true to people that should hear it. You should be commended.

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  7. Isn't the transformation of medicinal chemistry a testament to the status of organic chemistry as a highly successful and mature discipline? Can you think of synthesis being outsourced in the 80s when Sharpless epoxidation and Suzuki coupling could not yet produce molecules on the scale that they do now? The problem is that synthesis to a large extent has become so standardized and predictable that to a large extent you don't need highly creative people to do it. Contrast that with neuroscience or even my field of molecular modeling which isn't going to become commoditized anytime soon, partly because neither of them is so highly developed as synthetic organic chemistry.

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    1. I forgot to add that the same thing has been happening to computer programming recently, and it's precisely why companies like Microsoft and Google can outsource so much of their development to other countries; coding has become quite standardized, and while there will always be a small niche demand for original code, this will be limited to a small fraction at the top who can then shower the rest of us with the fruits of their labors. The vast masses who do coding meanwhile will never make the kind of money that the skill set commanded fifteen years ago. Ditto for med chem. Whenever a discipline becomes too mature it sadly becomes a victim of its own success. That's why it's best to enter a discipline where the supply is still tight and the low hanging fruit is still ripe for the taking. In the tech sector data science is such a field right now, but you can bet that it's not going to last long once that skill set too becomes largely automated and standardized.

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  8. I guess my concern is the destructive social cost of having to retrain into a new field with "low-hanging fruit", which seems like it may occur at an ever increasing rate. Every time a man loses his job it can put stress on a marriage or relationships with his family. Retraining is extra expense which takes away from money needed for retirement or sending kids to college. This is what natural science majors didnt have to contend with 30 years ago but an additional stress that have to deal with now. I bet there are far more divorces among PhD natural scientists today than there were 30 years ago, and, if so, this is an indirect affect of globalization.

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    1. " I bet there are far more divorces among PhD natural scientists today than there were 30 years ago, and, if so, this is an indirect affect of globalization."

      An interesting point, and I imagine there are more divorces though I don't k now (or know that one could really find out) if the increase is greater than for the population at large. The corollary, of course, is that job gains in the PRC and India may lead to happier marriages there...

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    2. Yes, your decision(s) to fund start-up's (or whatever you fund) may directly affect the love/personal life of scientists. You got shmoozed in the right way? Several marriages safe. Not enough martini's at lunch? Many teardrops may follow....

      Maybe you should rename yourself the "heartbreak king" :)

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    3. I've heard that companies have "people" working for them who have "feelings". Honestly, all I see is a symbol---in red or green---on a monitor.

      More a gibson fan, myself.

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