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A Foot in the Door--Drug Discovery Training in Canada


Finding candidate drugs and developing them into bedside treatments has come a long way since Alexander Fleming first made a chance observation of the effect of penicillin mould on bacterial growth back in 1928. The mapping of the human genome, the growth of information technology, and the globalisation of medicines research and development to international standards are just some of the changes that have had a major impact on how medicines are discovered and developed. Robotics, genomics, high-throughput screening, combinatorial chemistry, and informatics tools have given companies far more lead compounds to sift through than they had in the past.

All of which means that today's scientists are expected to have the ability to manage and conduct studies on each compound in a way that saves resources and time, and to be able to determine quickly which compounds are developable. Scientists have to be able to hit the ground running, as innovation in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries is a long and costly process, involving several stages of basic, applied, and clinical research, and often taking up to 15 years to complete.

Does Canada have opportunities in drug discovery?

But, although modern technologies are accelerating the number of compounds that companies can produce and analyse, in Canada there has not been a dramatic increase in the number of jobs created for drug discovery scientists. The international life science job market, which traditionally cycles through highs and lows, has endured a particularly difficult period in the last 2 years. A downturn in the global economy, a lack of venture capital flowing in to start-up and expansion-phase companies, and the general tightening of corporate belts has led to poor job growth in the biotech and pharma industries. While there are signs of recovery, the competition for research jobs in industry is stiff.

The Canadian drug discovery industry is still small, especially in comparison to the United States, owing to the lack of big pharmaceutical companies conducting research and development in this country. Thanks to a critical mass of companies in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and Boston, those regions have far more industry research positions, explains Joanne Harack, vice president of human resources and corporate communications at Affinium Pharmaceuticals Inc. Affinium, a University of Toronto spin-off, has been in the drug discovery business for 4 years and focuses on the development of novel antibiotics. No region of Canada has quite achieved the necessary critical mass of big pharma companies. Not yet, anyway.

Nevertheless, Canadian job opportunities in drug discovery are on the rise, Harack declares, as the local biotechnology industry enters its 'early teen' phase, growing from early stage R&D to development and commercialization. "Our industry is just ... much less developed and, consequently, the opportunities are on the increase as the industry grows and develops," she notes. Approximately one-third of Canada's 360-odd biotechnology companies are involved in pharmaceuticals development. A large number of these companies are clustered in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Saskatoon and provide a significant number of drug discovery jobs in those areas. All of these areas may have the potential to achieve the kind of critical mass seen in key biotech regions to the south.

[For more information on biotech clusters in Canada, read this Next Wave series]

While the pool of drug discovery positions in Canada slowly grows, so too does the competition to hire scientists with drug discovery experience and training. Just as science jobs are scarce, so, too, are scientists. Next Wave Canada tried and failed to identify any formal training programs in drug discovery in Canada. Up to this point, Harack explains, start-up biotech companies in Canada have often looked to the U.S. and Europe, or to larger pharma companies in Canada, to recruit their staff.

Bob Hancock, director of the Centre for Microbial Diseases and Immunity Research at the University of British Columbia (UBC), says the lack of formal training programs in drug discovery shouldn't discourage students interested in entering the field. He believes that a great deal of drug discovery research, and hence informal training in the area, is performed at academic institutions located in Canada's bioscience clusters, and their spin-off companies. "I think we have not only excellent basic scientists but also quite entrepreneurial individuals ? many of whom have spun off companies," he says, "so it is possible to get a realistic experience in drug discovery in a university environment."

And that informal university training need not be restricted to pharmacy or pharmaceutical science departments. According to Harack, graduate education in the life sciences in theory can provide students with the basic skills they need to search through compounds for the metaphorical 'needle in a haystack' within the context of a small life-sciences company. Life-science students are trained to identify and define a problem, solve the problem imaginatively, and apply and integrate the knowledge learned from various disciplines. An advanced degree in the life sciences might give you all you need to get started.

Drug discoverers need more than good grades

Still, getting a foot in the door doesn't depend entirely on having a good academic record. "A strong sense of enquiry and the ability to learn from a number of different disciplines simultaneously and to integrate these perspectives" are also key personal qualities that hiring managers look for in drug discovery, says Harack. "Equally important in an emerging company such as Affinium," she continues, "are personal attributes such as having a 'can do' attitude, the ability to learn independently and quickly, the ability to multitask in a fast paced organization, and, most significantly, good team skills, including communication skills. Many of these are developed--or should be--in formal education programs." And as far as minimum requirements for getting a job go, "postdoctoral experience may not be as significant as industry experience, and the doctorate per se may not be as important as a candidate's familiarity with a therapeutic area."

Mark Bray, founder and director of Miikana Therapeutics, a company that makes novel anticancer drugs, emphasises that above all it is the "ability to work with people and motivate people in a team environment" that is integral to achieving success in a small drug discovery company. And while Ph.D. scientists are expected to be innovative thinkers and have solid ideas about the company's direction, "one arrogant, brilliant person who works independently can ruin a small organization," he explains. "There has to be a balance between creative ingenuity and the ability to work in a team."

The arena of drug discovery training in Canada could be set to change in the coming years. Working on the premise that scientific research is the foundation of any technology industry, Hancock and others at UBC are writing a business proposal for an integrative centre for drug research, with an objective of developing intellectual property in drug discovery, providing training for drug discovery researchers, and developing new technologies. If it gets off the ground, the centre will be a first in Canada and perhaps unique in the world. "As far as we can judge, there are not too many centres around the world like this where you bring a lot of different types of drug discovery activities under a single roof," he tells Next Wave Canada.

A career in drug discovery by no means has to begin and end in research, according to Hancock. Many of his former students that entered the business as researchers have since moved on to managerial or peripheral roles, such as technology transfer, venture capital, regulatory affairs, and preclinical and clinical development. Some are even CEOs. There will continue to be a demand for these people, he says, because "at the end of the day, it's a fabulous thing to be involved in drug discovery. It's very exciting, it's very relevant, [and] it's an area that needs dedicated, enthusiastic individuals."

How They Did It: Profiles of Scientists in Drug Discovery

The Entrepreneur:

Mark Bray of Miikana Therapeutics tells Next Wave Canada that he was methodical in his pursuit of a drug discovery career. He managed to identify very early what he wanted to achieve; he claims he's always had "a strong industrial bent." Bray completed his graduate studies in protein chemistry at the University of Guelph; his first taste of industry came with an NSERC industrial postdoc fellowship at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he studied the characteristics of biomass-degrading enzymes. "It was then that I decided I wanted to be involved in developing protein drugs in a medically oriented part of the industry," he says. He proceeded to conduct his search for a second, more targeted postdoc in Toronto.

After a successful postdoc at the Ontario Cancer Institute, where he developed a proprietary platform for the discovery of novel cancer therapeutic agents, Bray was asked to join the former Amgen Research Institute in Toronto (now called the Advanced Medical Discovery Institute and no longer part of the parent company) as the head of their quantitative biology group and act as liaison to Amgen Inc. in California. His responsibilities included coordinating various multidisciplinary teams working on small molecule and antibody programs and evaluating new research and licensing opportunities for incorporation in Amgen's programs. The management and communication experience acquired through his time at Amgen, he says, was invaluable for his current position as director of research at Miikana.

The Academic:

"I think I was always fascinated with creating something new and exciting," says Lakshmi Kotra, director of the Molecular Design and Information Technology Center at the University of Toronto. His multidisciplinary academic research spans computer modeling, protein-protein/protein-ligand structural analyses, drug design, and synthetic medicinal chemistry, incorporating the principles of chemogenomics. Chemogenomics is a new concept where drug design and screening is conducted at the genome level for selective drug discovery effort against one target among a large family of related proteins/receptors.

After earning a pharmacy degree in India, he moved into graduate studies in synthetic and medicinal chemistry at the University of Georgia. "I spent 3 years in computer modeling, [integrating] various disciplines such as synthetic chemistry, drug design, computer modeling, etc., which provided a solid background to be able to conduct my independent investigations in drug discovery."

Kotra is content to remain in academic research, despite the somewhat limited funding for chemistry studies with a drug discovery focus. "To be successful in academia, one has to have novel and independent ideas, which keeps me on my toes all the time and makes me challenge myself constantly," he explains. It is also necessary to find a balance between grant writing, research group management, research projects, and teaching responsibilities ... not to mention having a life.

The Graduate Student:

For UBC student Jon-Paul Powers, finding a mentor doing exciting research in drug discovery was the primary motivation for his return to academia, after a brief hiatus, for doctoral studies at the Centre for Microbial Diseases and Immunity Research at UBC. After completing his undergraduate degree in biochemistry, he accepted an administrative position at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). During his year at CIHR he worked on a project involving the biographies of Canadian scientists and came across Bob Hancock's work on antimicrobial peptides.

"I was attracted to the applied nature of his research on cationic peptides as pharmaceutical agents, so I contacted Bob through e-mail and told him [of] my interest in nuclear magnetic resonance and his research." Finding information about careers in drug discovery at the time was difficult, he admits, "I couldn't really find any good sources of career information, [so I] focused on seminars and job postings from drug discovery companies to see what was involved."

In preparation for a future career in industry, Powers has incorporated many techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance and calorimetry, which he considers relevant in drug design. "I have also been lucky enough to receive an NSERC Industrial Post Graduate Scholarship Award supported by Helix Biomedix Inc. This has given me the opportunity to work with people in the drug development industry and to observe the differences from an academic setting."