Organic chemistry rises to the healthcare challenge
Organic chemistry is a key part of the EPSRC strategy, say senior chemistry leaders in the UK pharmaceutical industry
EPSRC is in the process of identifying 'grand challenges' that will set the priorities for collaborative research across the chemical sciences and engineering for the next 20-40 years (Chemistry World , November 2008, p7). This represents a shift away from research funded through the traditional responsive mode mechanism, raising concerns amongst the UK academic community that access to funding sources will be further diminished and freedom to pursue their chosen areas of scientific investigation will be restricted.
The authors of this article, senior chemistry leaders across the UK pharmaceutical sector, met recently to discuss how we, as scientific partners for the academic community and key customers for the output from PhD programmes (research and skilled scientists), can help bridge the apparent divide. There was broad agreement that the grand challenge approach to research funding could represent a key mechanism for retaining a central role for organic chemistry in developing solutions to global problems, rather than becoming a service to other disciplines.
At one extreme, the predefinition of priority research areas could stifle the freedom, scholarship and scientific rigour that characterises UK-based research. Indeed, the past record of academic achievement includes many examples where responsive-mode funded research has led to discoveries with broad utility. As long as the themes remain loose enough to accommodate a wide range of academic interests, the grand challenges could provide invaluable guidance to researchers, helping to signpost opportunities for collaborative programmes. Sometimes the most transformational solutions might appear to be incremental and unimaginative and there needs to be licence for such research to continue in order to allow the true potential of existing technologies to be realised in a broader context.
Excellence in synthetic organic chemistry underpins the success enjoyed by the pharmaceutical industry over the last 20 years with at least 10 of the top-selling drugs worldwide (over $1billion annual sales at peak) having UK-trained PhD organic chemists as named inventors. Furthermore, PhD organic chemists have risen to senior positions within pharmaceutical organisations and had a significant influence over their research strategy and decision-making.
Synthetic organic chemistry remains an integral part of medicinal chemistry design, enabling the most carefully designed target compounds to be realised in a rapid and efficient manner. Similarly, powerful synthetic technologies open up new areas of chemical space introducing new solution options and enabling project teams to identify the very best drug candidates. When synthetic enablement is lacking, we see projects stall, even those with the best biological or clinical rationale.
A key question is how synthetic organic chemistry can best serve the future needs of the pharmaceutical industry.
One of the main conclusions from EPSRC's 2003 review Chemistry at the Centre described a view of chemistry as 'small science'. The report also highlighted scholarship as a strength but innovation a relative weakness. In response, EPSRC has introduced funding initiatives such as programme grants and portfolio partnerships.
Medicinal chemistry challenges
One of EPSRC's grand challenge themes, 'Synthesis, assembly and manufacture by design', recognises the interdependence of design and synthesis. As organic chemists turn their attention to a wider landscape of mechanisms and processes, they will need to call upon an ever expanding range of methodologies to ensure their designs are realisable in a timely, economic and environmentally acceptable fashion.
The research skills developed within collaborative programmes will be more important in an increasingly multidisciplinary industrial setting where the scientific challenges are becoming less well-defined and the means by which we address the challenges more varied and complex. Foremost amongst these skills is the ability to develop partnerships with scientists from other disciplines and to capitalise on such relationships to help identify opportunities for collaboration.
Postgraduate research training in the UK has historically delivered students equipped to succeed in the industrial environment and to contribute to knowledge and wealth creation. EPSRC's grand challenges funding strategy could provide a valuable mechanism for signposting areas that would benefit from cross-discipline collaboration. The benefits for organic chemistry of engaging in collaborative research are wide-reaching.
Key to success is to ensure an effective partnership is maintained across the key stakeholders (academics, funding bodies, professional bodies and industry) through this period of transition.
David Fox, Tony Wood (Pfizer); Paul Leeson, David Lathbury, David Hollinshead (AstraZeneca); Simon Macdonald (GSK); Phil Jones (Schering-Plough); Luis Castro (Eisai); David Rees (Astex Therapeutics); Keith Jones (Institute of Cancer Research).
A longer version of this comment article is available below.
Also of interest
How can the chemical sciences provide technological and sustainable solutions to the problems faced by tomorrow's world? See the RSC's roadmap for the Chemical Sciences.
External links will open in a new browser window