Careers in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals: Something old, something new

This Advertising Feature has been commissioned, edited, and produced by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

Across the broad range of life science research under way in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, many companies need scientists with traditional skills, such as pharmacology or biology. In addition, nearly all companies want experts from newer fields, especially bioinformatics. The wide panel of industry leaders interviewed here shows how combining the old with the new spawns a variety of jobs.

In much of the press, the first announcements of the human genome sequence depicted scientists reaching a peak—the culmination of the genomics era. Unraveling the genome for any species surely marks a milestone and even represents reaching one summit, but it truly marks just another beginning in an ongoing climb. In the world of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, today’s scientists work hard to find ways to put all of these data to a variety of useful purposes.

Those purposes cover a broad slice of today’s life sciences. Sometimes scientists instantly correlate the words genome and biotech with drug discovery, and with good reason. Many discoveries in genomics do enhance drug discovery and development. Nonetheless, genomics and other ongoing aspects of modern life sciences also contribute to new diagnostic tests and even crop science. This breadth also continues to open new doors for prospective employees.

Stringing the Beads

In Davis, California, scientists at Sagres Discovery use high throughput genomic technologies to identify and assess the function of human cancer genes. David Ferrick, chief executive officer at Sagres, says, “The genome sequence has ushered in a whole new era for drug discovery.” The advances arise from the sequences themselves, as well as from the new tools and techniques that scientists developed to do the sequencing. “Like any toddler,” Ferrick continues, “sequencing is going through its growing pains, while biology tries to keep pace with the robustness of the genetic capabilities.”

In other words, Ferrick wants to see scientists use the new genetic tools in biologically meaningful ways. For example, he says, “We can streamline the drug discovery process, instead of making it more cumbersome and expensive.” Ferrick also suspects that the differences between individuals will grow even more significant. He says, “The individual differences will place even more value on SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] analysis. Sequencing the genomes of multiple individuals will also be very powerful.”

With so many potential drug targets from all the sequencing, though, scientists need to know which targets offer the most potential. Thomas Bumol, vice president of biotechnology discovery research at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, says, “The real issue is the validation gap. In the future, we need to know which are the most important validated drug targets.”

Arranging the Results

Simply collecting loads of sequencing information, however, will not make the data meaningful. Paul Anderson, research director at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., which is a plant seed company that uses biotechnology based breeding methods and is located in Des Moines, Iowa, says, “In the age that we’re in right now, we’re collecting all kinds of information very fast, and sorting it is the critical task. So, bioinformatics is expanding fast and there’s a lot of need for this specialty.”

At Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, scientists use Chemogenomics, which has brought three drug candidates into preclinical development. These drug candidates target members of the protein kinase gene family as part of a broad collaboration with Novartis. Moreover, these potential drugs could treat major diseases such as cancer and stroke. Making such approaches operate depends fundamentally on bioinformatics. Martyn Botfield, sector head for biophysical chemistry at Vertex, says, “Sequencing the human genome was a stunning achievement. Now we need to understand this long list of parts.” Before that parts list gets really useful, though, Botfield says that the pieces must be organized. “We have a deluge of potential targets,” he says, “but understanding and prioritizing them is not an easy task.” This organizing, according to Botfield, opens the avenue to asking newer, bigger questions—approaching the basis of biology. Nevertheless, Botfield thinks that scientists must gather more data on how the parts fit together. He says, “We still need to gather data until we have a large enough database to make sense of this.”

Today’s world of bioinformatics, however, changes rapidly. To be effective, Ferrick says, “You must bring the biology to informatics.” In the past, he says, “We used computer techniques and tools that helped us compare things. Now bioinformatics people need strong biological backgrounds that help them put things together, query information, and whittle it down to the important candidates.”

From Ferrick’s perspective, the need for computing skills extends beyond people who specialize in bioinformatics. He says, “The better the computer skills among the employees, the better the information flow is in the company.” To Ferrick computer skills do not necessarily mean programming knowledge. Instead, he says, “We like people who understand how to go beyond the 5 percent utilization of programs like Excel, people who understand how a database operates.” He says that such knowledge changes how scientists look at the results and how they represent them.

Looking Ahead with ‘The Oldies’

With all of the advances in genomics and informatics, a developing scientist could easily conclude that today’s world of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals lies entirely in new techniques. Nevertheless, many managers seek scientists with traditional skills. These skills include working on higher systems, from tissues to whole organisms.

Ferrick sees a real need for people skilled in what he calls macrobiology. He defines this as “people who understand biology at the tissue or organ level.” Ferrick adds, “That is something that we don’t really train for any more. Undergraduates can clone anything, but ask how pathways or tissues might interact and they don’t know.” As biology grows ever more interdisciplinary—especially in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals—the needs for more broadly trained scientists expand. Ferrick says, “It’s hard to find extremely well-rounded biologists. We’ve tipped the pendulum to the robust techniques, but we need people who are trained along broader lines.”

Anderson of Pioneer also sees needs for scientists with expertise in more traditional fields. He says, “Biochemistry is becoming more and more important.” Pioneer also looks for people with experience in whole plant physiology. So, while the modern skills gain lots of attention, many companies look increasingly for people with a solid foundation in traditional skills.

Getting Proteins in Shape

In some cases, older concepts and newer techniques combine to push technology ahead. Such a combination appears under way for proteins. Ferrick says, “The protein was the poor cousin to the gene, because protein was so much harder to work with and the technology was so much lower throughput.”

Today, though, many groups hope to push up the throughput of protein technologies. In other words, industrialization hastened genome sequencing and could do the same for proteins. Ferrick says, “We recently acquired a crystallography group. Five years ago, I would not think—as a small company—we would acquire a crystallography group because that looked like big pharma.” Nevertheless, Ferrick saw that technical advances could bring the power of structural protein biology even to a smaller company. He says, “The power of the protein—the working end of the molecule—will be extreme in biopharmaceuticals.”

At Lilly, Bumol also sees the power of bringing high throughput techniques to proteins. He says, “Beyond target discovery, we expect that proteins will reveal novel biomarkers, which will be important for new strategies to get a drug in the clinic and could be used in future diagnostics.” So, like genes before them, proteins could offer a long future of providing new experimental approaches, products, and positions.

Sowing New Seeds

Today’s molecular science goes beyond the lab to, say, a farmer’s field. Although scientists still need to sequence the genomes of most major crops, including corn and soybeans, geneticists already know the sequences of many of the genes that get expressed in these plants. Anderson of Pioneer says, “This gives us a much better understanding of a wide number of genes, how they are expressed, and what their potential functions are.” He adds that this knowledge really opens up product development, because “the number of traits that we can work on is much broader.”

By knowing what genes get expressed in crops, scientists can experiment with ones to turn off. Anderson says, “Gene silencing technologies are very important.” These high throughput techniques knock out specific genes, which can reveal what the silenced gene normally does. Sometimes, silencing itself can improve a crop. For instance, native soybeans make an easily oxidized and rather unstable oil. To improve the stability, food manufacturers hydrogenate the oil, but that produces trans fats, which are currently under attack from nutritionists. To fix that problem, Anderson and his colleagues used gene silencing to block the production of polyunsaturated fats and get an oil high in oleic acid, which is stable and requires less or no hydrogenation. So that silencing creates a healthier oil.

The silencing, though, wanders far beyond the farms. In the field of in vitro diagnostics, scientists at Gen-Probe in San Diego develop screening tests for the detection of bacterial, viral, and human RNA and DNA. Larry Mimms, vice president of strategic planning and business development at Gen-Probe, says, “We believe that detection and quantification of both coding and noncoding mRNA may be of significance in detecting and staging cancers.” For instance, Mimms points out the extensive conservation in noncoding regions of DNA and RNA when comparing mice and humans. He asks, “What is all of this that was seemingly thought to be junk RNA and DNA?” He suspects that the noncoding regions supply significant regulatory functions. By using small interfering RNA, or siRNA, scientists have knocked out a specific gene’s expression and then looked at the result. Mimms says, “Although siRNA is an important scientific breakthrough, whether it will break through to a new therapeutic any time soon remains to be seen.”

Surpassing Syringes

The future might also lead to new ways to deliver therapeutics. In Mountain View, California, a modern biologist might find opportunities at Alza Corporation, which solves problems in drug delivery. This company’s tactics range from oral approaches to liposomes.

Suneel Gupta, Alza’s senior vice president of experimental pharmacology and clinical research, says, “There’s been a lot of effort trying to individualize treatment options, but there is no proof as yet, no product on the market.” In the past, though, Gupta points out that pharmaceuticals largely treated symptoms. Now, he says, “We are getting to the cure side instead of simply managing the responses.” By knowing the genes and proteins involved in a health problem, Gupta hopes that scientists can learn to solve medical problems. In the future, Gupta expects advanced drug delivery vehicles, such as transplanted cells.

Those transplants might involve stem cells. Jonathan Auerbach, director of the national stem cell resource, a National Institutes of Health program at American Type Culture Collection, says, “Research in stem cells is really explosive right now. We are beginning to realize their potential.” For example, scientists keep finding stem cells in more types of developed tissues. In addition, stem cell researchers can also now get functional stem cells from more tissues than ever before. Although American Type Culture Collection does not have any human stem cells, Auerbach says, “With stem cells, the sky is the limit. Scientists are really going in the direction of human trials, especially for Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries.”

It Pays to Be Practical

Before getting to the future, companies must succeed today. And “today” even changes by the minute for some operations. Ferrick of Sagres points out his company’s transition from largely research to drug development. He says, “We’ve gone from being pirates on the open seas—where you attack biology at your discretion—to being the Spanish armada—where you start making good on the discoveries.”

Many companies seek employees with the Spanish armada attitude. For example, Botfield of Vertex says, “We want people who have the ability to make decisions. You need to know when to continue working on something and when to punt.” He adds, “Academic training may not reward punting.”

At Lilly, Bumol needs people who fit into industry. He says, “We are interested in individuals who are interested in drug discovery, are interested in translating the biotech discoveries to drug candidates.” He really stresses the importance of potential employees understanding their role at Lilly. He emphasizes, “Anyone looking for work here must really understand that they would be joining a drug hunting culture, a company extremely interested in taking topics from the cover of Science to the clinic.”

Besides the need to make marketable products, other aspects of today’s biotechnology and pharmacology also demand practicality. For instance, today’s companies must deal with FDA regulations when moving into development stages. For new crops, Anderson says, “The regulatory area is becoming more and more important and having people with a scientific grounding is critical.” American Type Culture Collection also hires Ph.D. scientists for marketing, licensing, technical service, and more, which provides many opportunities for scientists outside the lab, if desired.

Companies also face issues regarding intellectual property. Gupta says, “We always need people with intellectual property knowledge. We need to carve out our space and not infringe on other people.” He adds, “This field is getting so crowded that intellectual property is more important than ever.”

Building Up the Bandwidth

The broad array of topics that make up today’s biotechnology and pharmaceuticals requires scientists who will always hone a broad collection of capabilities. “The world is changing so fast,” Gupta says, “that people don’t realize it.” He most admires people who can adapt to new circumstances. “Those people,” Gupta says, “are my heroes.”

Anderson agrees that the world of biotech spins along intensely. He says, “Things are changing faster than they ever were, and people must play multiple roles.” In fact, Anderson even looks for potential mentoring skills in job candidates. “No matter what,” he says, “some of the training and some of the learning really can only occur on the job and will come from other employees.” No one can be trained for all possibilities in industry. Anderson says, “Lots of new developments now take place outside of the universities.”

Fulfilling all of these capabilities takes someone who gobbles up information and organizes it in meaningful bites. “Today’s industry requires lots of lateral thinking or high bandwidth,” Mimms says. “You need to integrate all the stuff flying at you at once and translate that into something that management can understand.” He believes that this ability requires good communication skills—from writing and speaking to interacting with many different kinds of people.

So lots of room remains for new scientists in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Those who integrate the traditional sciences with modern techniques, possess a practical feel for industry, stay flexible, and can get across their ideas will surely receive exciting offers.

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