Monday, April 17, 2017

How many chemical biologists are there?

Via random clickings on Twitter (or was it LinkedIn?), this interesting statement in a Nature Reviews Drug Discovery interview with Jay Bradner (the president of NIBR) about making a strong push into chemical biology: 
...Building on this legacy, we have created a new discovery unit with NIBR: Chemical Biology & Therapeutics (CBT). To my knowledge, chemical biology has not previously been an organizing principle for serious efforts in coordinated drug discovery. 
What does this mean in practical terms? 
We have pulled the foundational disciplines of chemical biology into one seamless collaborative unit. CBT — under the direction of Jeff Porter — will innovate new small-molecule libraries with unique functionalities, implement high-throughput biology in annotated libraries, reconsider protein sciences and integrate sophisticated computational analyses, all to glean unexpected insights from biological systems. Examples include new types of therapeutic agent, such as targeted-protein degraders that link the cellular machinery of degradation to proteins of therapeutic interest, and reconsiderations of chemical equity, such as vast and chiral DNA-encoded libraries. We intend to organize around new types of chemical tool to make unprecedented insights into disease biology, and we expect that new therapeutic vectors will emanate immediately from these efforts. 
I envision more than 400 chemical biologists organizing around these principles. (emphasis CJ's) And we've spent a lot of time reworking the organization to colocalize these individuals, because I believe that a high degree of effective molarity drives innovation in biomedical research.
So how many chemical biologists are there? I sent this question out on Twitter, with the rhetorical question of "Are there 400 chemical biologists?" I regret that what I really meant was  "Are there 400 chemical biologists who are footloose-and-fancy-free enough for Jay Bradner to hire?" I think most folks interpreted my question as "no way there are 400 chemical biologists!", and I only have myself to blame for that. (I don't think that, actually.)

There were a vast number of estimates, all taking the over: Laura Kiessling said definitely more than 400 (so did Matt Disney), Anirban Mahapatra also suggested a number in the 1000s (with a good way to estimate being the various co-authors of the various chemical biology journals out there). Patrick Holder also says "well over a 1000 worldwide" (considering that Cal probably has produced over 120 during its time). Aaron Crapster suggests that there have been over 500 trained in the Bay Area alone (in the past 10 years.)

Finally, Professor Bertozzi weighed in: "If the >150 PhD and postdocs trained in my lab qualify as chemical biologists, then the # worldwide must be more like 10,000."

(This has got to be wrong, don't you think? Are there 66 Carolyn Bertozzi-equivalents in the world in terms of training chemical biologists? Are there 132 0.5CBEs? or 264 0.25CBEs?)

Sadly, I can't rely on my favorite crutch, the Survey of Earned Doctorates, which is relatively silent as to the specific field of chemical biology. I did find a surprising fact: the United States has graduated somewhere between 700 and 800 Ph.D. biochemists every year between 2005 and 2015. By comparison, readers of this blog know that the U.S. graduated somewhere around 600-650 Ph.D. organic chemists a year during this time.

Regarding the specific question that I had, i.e. "how many Ph.D. chemical biologists have graduated in the United States?" I estimated (without much thought) that the number was less than 1000. (I was spitballing 50 per year with "chemical biology" having been around for ~20 years.) I could be convinced it's more than that (2000? 2500?), but not by much. As for the worldwide number, I honestly have no idea.

Readers, what do you think? 

16 comments:

  1. CJ: Need some enlightenment on a dumb question. How would you define Chemical biologist? So, I am an organic chemist with tremendous amount of medicinal chemistry knowledge garnered over the years of experience working for big pharma. I am proficient with biology on all programs that I was part of, I have worked and on occasion helped biologist with some assay and then some! Can I call myself chemical biologist? Or, people are spinning stories by changing the definition?

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  2. Still not sure what the difference between biochemistry and chemical biology is and if it's useful to split them up.

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    1. If you're a dean, and you split them up, you gain 1) a trendy-sounding new department and 2) another chair position you can use to reward some high-achiever (ideally, some other university's high-achiever).

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    2. I once had a chemical biologist clarify this for me. If it's boring, then it's biochemistry. If it's interesting, then it's chemical biology.

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    3. I like to differentiate the two in an academic setting by asking: Do they perform research on biological targets using primarily commercially available kits (biochemist) or do they use chemistry to develop their own tools/probes for application in biological targets (chemical biologist)?

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  3. Sub-sub-discipline labeling is a tricky business, especially when one is trying to estimate numbers. This came up a few years ago when the term "materials chemist" became fashionable. Today, we see such lofty titles as semiconducting inorganic materials chemists, biomacromolecular materials chemists, computational condensed matter materials chemists, etc, etc. We tend to make these buckets smaller and smaller until they hold but a handful of unique snowflakes.

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  4. Maybe Caroline was pointing out that it depends on how you define it. Does publishing in a chemical biology journal make me a chemical biologist. In grad school and during my post-docs I did a lot of work with surface chemistry. Surface chemistry interacts with many fields. At least some of my work (my two most cited papers) crossed over into biology, but I'm not sure that I could convince someone that I'm "bio" anything. As an aside, I've been told I can't call myself a surface chemist because my work did not involve ultra-high vacuum, showing the tricky business of defining a chemist.

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    1. Exactly the point. I once introduced a senior co-worker as a polymer chemist, after which he politely told me that he is actually a polymer scientist and that the distinction is rather important. He and I did the same job for many years and I never learned to appreciate the importance of that distinction, other than the fact that he would often waive off chemistry questions as being too pedestrian for his abilities.

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    2. WTF? I'm also a polymer chemist/scientist/whatever, and this is the first time I've ever heard this.

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    3. This guy did a lot of basic work in studying the effects of microphase structure on viscoelasticity, glass transition, etc. I suppose that qualifies as a different subfield (physical polymer chemistry?). He would often point out that most DMA and DSC interpretations from groups specializing in polymer synthesis were oversimplified and flawed. Nice enough guy, it just wasn't very much fun talking science with such a pedant.

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    4. Anon 11:38 here again. Interesting way of putting it. I can certainly appreciate the difference between someone who synthesizes polymers versus someone who studies their mechanical properties.

      There's a good reason why specialized thermal analysis scientists exist. I admit I know just enough to be dangerous when it comes to DSC.

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    5. Not to hijack the post, but I've always found dynamic mechanical analysis to be incredibly interesting. That's my go-to example for correlating structure/property relationships because there are great examples of covalent and intermolecular effects.

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  5. My Big Pharma company recently re-organized and created a Chemical Biology Department out of whole cloth, staffed with trained synthetic organic chemists. They mainly focus on antibody drug conjugates, peptides, installing photo-labile linkers, etc. Outside of polymer chemistry (which has some applications in chem bio), there is no extra "training" needed. In most cases, any competent organic chemist can master the techniques. As it turns out, a bond is just a bond no matter how you slice it. ;)

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  6. Sounds like a ploy to garner attention of the MBA masters who typically know little about either chemistry or biology but are in awe that someone might combine them. I am with the first response in that majority of practicing med chemists probably could easily wear such a tag although perhaps may aid the individuals who received or seek PHD in medchem get better respect if they now relabel themselves to this more fashionable term.

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    1. When I was an undergrad, things like "bioinorganic chemistry" or "chemical biology" sounded really exotic and futuristic. I'm sure that works like a charm on the MBA types!

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  7. Where's the first Green Chemical Biology program going to be?

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