Over recent years pharmaceutical R&D within the UK has undergone a significant transformation. Dominated in the past by large multinational pharmaceutical companies, subsequent closures and down-sizing plans have proven a catalyst for change. As a result an ecosystem of collaborative research partners is now emerging which encompasses small and large pharma, SMEs, academia, health charities and the NHS.
Despite these seismic changes, excellent drug discovery research continues to be performed in the UK. However the way it happens is changing; drug discovery now often takes place across multiple sites using the expertise and experience of diverse groups. It is often no longer good enough simply to be an outstanding research scientist; to succeed in drug development, researchers of need strong communication and collaboration skills and the ability to network as well as project-management capabilities. While expert biologists, chemists and physicists are still required, there is also a need to move away from traditional subject boundaries and to capitalise on the increasingly multidisciplinary approach to drug discovery.
Industry, academia, the health service, charities and the government must collectively be seen as integral to the process, with an expectation that staff can move freely between them. Learned societies, particularly when acting as a collective, have the breadth of membership and experience to help bring together these diverse networks.
A number of learned societies have come together in an informal partnership termed the Drug Discovery Pathways Group (DDPG). The core group of the Biochemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Society of Biology and the British Pharmacological Society are working to ensure that current and future generations of drug discovery scientists are appropriately equipped to thrive in the rapidly moving pharmaceutical R&D sector. Work is undertaken under the auspices of three broad themes: skills, CPD and researcher mobility/permeability.
Skills-related work is pursued by a separate Drug Discovery Skills Group (DDSG) which features representation from a wide variety of societies. The group recognizes that as the drug industry restructures there is a real concern that the unique skills and talents found in industry research labs will be lost. To address this, the DDSG is aiming to scope out the existing provision of skills for graduates and match this against industrial need.
Each organization within the DDSG is working towards creating a document which outlines the key skills required for drug discovery within their discipline. These include statements that focus on chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology and pharmacy with the ultimate aim to create a map of interdisciplinary drug discovery skills. To this end, the Biochemical Society has created a position statement on the biochemistry skills needed for drug discovery.
In our statement we have identified some of the most significant topics in drug discovery where young biochemists can have a major impact. These are highlighted against the backdrop of modern drug design and development and include a wide range of biomolecular disciplines. Biochemistry skills can be applied at a variety of stages of the drug discovery process; from early involvement in the identification and validation of potential molecular targets for new drug projects, to key roles in assay design, troubleshooting and implementation throughout the screening and optimization stages of both traditional small molecules and biopharmaceutical products. In the latter case, expertise in molecular immunology, genetic manipulation, protein chemistry and synthetic biology have been crucial and provided new directions for drug discovery. At a later stage in new drug research, biochemical assays are needed to evaluate disease models and to drive biomarker analysis in translational medicine and clinical research.
The statement highlights that throughout the discovery process, biochemical skills are required for monitoring routes of drug metabolism, for pharmacokinetic analysis and safety testing. At a more biophysical level, biochemists may contribute significantly to computational chemistry and structural analysis, such as crystallography or other methods employed to demonstrate drug-binding modes and to predict potential modifications and improvements of lead compounds. With the current growth in bioinformatics, proteomics and genomics, there is even more scope for researchers with biochemical expertise, including emergent areas of carbohydrate diversity and glycomics or in lipidomics and lipid biology. New drug opportunities provided by various nucleic acid‐based disease interventions, including gene replacement, use of micro RNA gene silencing or exploitation of other novel methods for controlling gene expression may draw more biochemistry graduates into pharmaceutical and drug discovery careers.
Any list of key knowledge, skills and capabilities is inevitably dynamic. Nonetheless, there are clearly identifiable core requirements for biochemists that are unlikely to change rapidly while other, new skill requirements will emerge as technology advances and knowledge grows, requiring an syllabus to be continuously reviewed and updated.
Furthermore, our statement also highlights that it is vital to have an understanding/appreciation of other disciplines given that drug discovery is, and ever more so, a cross-discipline process. This is in line with the principles behind the DDSG group itself.
Our ‘Biochemistry Skills for Drug Discovery’ statement can now be found on our website.