Described by its creators as the first of its kind, Drexel University’s College of Medicine launched last fall a Drug Discovery and Development program, meant to train future pharmaceutical research professionals. Designed for graduate students, the now single course is set to expand into a degree-granting program that would help students understand the pharmaceutical industry — preparing them for careers in the field.
The program is directed by Dr. James Barrett, who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry and now chairs Drexel’s pharmacology and physiology department. We spoke yesterday about the new program.
Why is this program necessary and why now?
I recognized the unmet need that exists within a university to help people make an easy transition into the pharmaceutical industry. It’s extraordinarily complex. There are many different disciplines that have to work together.
Talk about the changes in the pharmaceutical industry that, in your view, make this program necessary.
Everything is accelerated in terms of the pace, but the companies have had their pipelines dry up. Companies are going to continue to try to develop drugs, but the context in which they do that is going to change. They haven’t been successful in the past several years – despite the advances in all the technologies – in bringing new products to market. So where will this be done? It’s going to be done in academic centers. One of the problems with major pharmaceutical companies is that they establish timelines. You can’t move science by quarterly earnings. What’s not possible in the industry these days is a long-term perspective. One thing academic science can do is provide a longer-term perspective. And I think you’ll see or hear that many companies are now looking to see how they can bridge academic and industrial collaborations to fill their pipelines.
So, in your view, there will be more partnerships between the pharmaceutical industry and academic institutions and the students in your program will be on the ground in that partnership.
That’s right. Although we’re still relatively young in setting this up, we would like to have cooperative relationships with pharmaceutical companies whereby our students can go out and spend three months or six months working in the industry, so that they not only get the classroom education, but they also get the direct hands-on experience of what it’s like to work in a pharmaceutical company. And then they finish their degree and ideally they would think about a post-doctoral fellowship or a position in industry or the applied technology sector.
Talk about the classroom work the students in the program do.
We take them through the evolution of a [drug] compound. Part of the course is to give a historical perspective, but we move pretty quickly into what people in the industry do first and that’s to pick a target for a specific disease. We try to cut across lots of different disciplines. Most of these lectures are done by people in the industry. We have medicinal chemists talk about how they synthesize compounds against their target and how they think about designing a drug that’ll hit that particular target. Then, [the students] move into how they’re going to study it in an animal model. You have somebody come in and talk about drug metabolism and safety and toxicology. Once you pass all that, you’re going to go to the FDA. We give [the students] guidelines from the FDA in terms of submitting a new investigational drug application. Then, the drug approval process: We have somebody give a live session of an advisory committee evaluating a company’s product. We end up with the post-marketing period.
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. James Barrett