How I survived the topsy-turvy pharmaceutical industry

     Pharmaceutical lab equipment is shown in this 2006 file photo. (Courtesy of AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Martin Ruetschi)

    Pharmaceutical lab equipment is shown in this 2006 file photo. (Courtesy of AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Martin Ruetschi)

    When I first entered the pharmaceutical industry three decades ago, I could never have envisioned how dramatically the landscape would change. Nor could I ever have imagined that I would run a pharmaceutical R&D consulting business rather than working as a company employee. It has been a challenging and transformative experience. I have no regrets, and I have learned a great deal about myself in the process.

    With Pfizer’s attempted takeover of AstraZeneca, Merck & Co.’s continued downsizing, and the recent acquisition of Cephalon Inc., the Philadelphia region’s pharmaceutical sector is going through some big changes. As the rate of drug discovery slows and the cost of research and development rises, more and more companies are outsourcing, leaving thousands of pharma workers workers jobless and leading to concerns of a brain drain.

    Thomas Bailey, a source for The Pulse‘s coverage of the pharmaceutical industry, is no stranger to the ups and downs of the recent shakeups. Here he tells the story of how he perservered and survived.

    When I first entered the pharmaceutical industry three decades ago, I could never have envisioned how dramatically the landscape would change. Nor could I ever have imagined that I would run a pharmaceutical R&D consulting business rather than working as a company employee. It has been a challenging and transformative experience. I have no regrets, and I have learned a great deal about myself in the process.

    Growing up during the “space race” of the 1960s, I gravitated toward the sciences. That fascination led to an interest in medicine. Along the way, I also discovered a passion for organic chemistry — the bane of most pre-med students. I reconciled these interests by choosing medicinal chemistry as a career.

    A medicinal chemist needs to be conversant in things biological, pharmacological and analytical — and, above all, an expert at synthesizing the tools that teams of scientists turn into drugs. It was medicinal chemists who invented new drugs during the golden age of small-molecular-weight medicines, roughly the period from the ’50s through the ’90s. This was the cauldron from which new medicines were born, and this gave rise to the modern pharmaceutical industry.

    A promising start, and then …

    In 1985, I had the honor and privilege of joining the antiviral drug discovery group at Sterling-Winthrop Research Institute, the research-and-development arm of Sterling Drug, outside of Albany, New York. This institute had a long and proud history of innovative drug discovery, and as a young Ph.D. chemist, I saw this as an ideal introduction to medicinal chemistry.

    I was not disappointed. I was a member of a team that discovered the novel cold virus drug pleconaril, and I became project chemist for all HIV programs at Sterling. It was not easy work, but we learned a great deal from all of the failures that necessarily precede any drug discovery.

    In 1987, things began to change when Hoffmann-LaRoche initiated a hostile takeover of Sterling Drug. A white knight was found in Eastman Kodak; little did we know that this was the beginning of the end. Kodak moved Sterling to Upper Providence Township in Pennsylvania, changed CEOs, and promptly broke the company apart. Sanofi bought the ethical pharmaceutical business but declined to take the research arm. Six hundred people, including myself, lost their jobs.

    Disruption and opportunity

    This was disruptive and frightening, but as I have since learned, opportunity often comes with change. A small antiviral company, ViroPharma, was born from this in 2004, and I had the good fortune to be hired by the company founders. The job was ideal. In addition to having my own group, I was responsible for the corporate database, robotics, screening compound acquisition, and our chemistry intern program. With my problem-solving and interpersonal skills, I eventually became the liaison between chemistry and biology, guiding the vetting process for new projects by supporting all early-stage discovery efforts.

    Within three years, we identified three new series and delivered three candidates for clinical trial. However, even with these successes, ViroPharma was never able to push a product to market. The company closed down, and I was kept on in a consulting role, this time in drug development, legal, and asset-sale support.

    One of those ViroPharma assets was the smallpox drug discovered while I was liaison! This became the drug tecovirimat, which is stockpiled by the U.S. government to be used in the event of a smallpox bioterrorist attack. As consultant to Siga Technologies, I managed tecovirimat’s preclinical chemistry.

    More R&D shuts down

    In 2004, a new opportunity presented itself, and I joined Cephalon’s central nervous system (CNS) group. I was always interested in CNS drug discovery, but that therapeutic area was very challenging. Little new was discovered over two decades, and Cephalon’s efforts yielded nothing internally. Again, a business decision was made to suspend CNS research. I escaped the layoffs that followed, and I found myself managing robotics, databases and vendors, and assisting chemistry outsourcing. But in early 2011, the board accepted a takeover bid from generic drugmaker Teva. In an agonizing decision, research was stopped, and another round of layoffs ensued.

    But this was OK. I was weary of disruptive layoffs, and I had become a master of many new skills. I knew that if I were to control my own destiny, I needed to embrace change by going independent. I created an LLC, and now I consult on everything from drug discovery through pre-clinical support. It is far better to mold the future than recapture a past that will never return.

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