Skills Bottleneck Threatens Pharma

Brazilian hopes of building up a home-grown pharmaceuticals industry to challenge the hegemony of multinational businesses could founder for lack of adequately trained professionals, experts have warned.

While Brazil is starting to develop the costly infrastructure needed for research and development in pharmaceuticals, it still lags behind in the field of medicinal chemistry, according to experts who attended a drug discovery conference held in Campinas, Brazil in late June.

If so, investment in new projects such as the drug discovery labs installed at the University of Campinas in early 2015 by the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) could be threatened. Medicinal chemists play a crucial role in helping diminish the shockingly high failure rate with compounds even before they reach clinical trials. You can read a full article about the SGC Campinas project and Brazil’s ambitions to be part of a global drug discovery “super network” by clicking here.

New SGC labs at Campinas

New SGC labs at Campinas

According to Lucio Freitas Junior, a researcher at the National Bioscience Laboratory, new generations of medicinal chemists need to be trained. Eric Chatelain, Head of Drug Discovery at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), a Swiss-based non-profit drug research and development organization, said: “What’s missing is the expertise and infrastructure needed for drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics [DMPK] testing, which gives chemists crucial guidance in designing and perfecting new compounds. This is the biggest gap in Brazil.”

Medicinal chemistry calls for expertise not only in lab work with target compounds and the synthesizing of molecules, but also medical skill in identifying diseases and the reactions that drugs produce. Medicinal chemists are trained physicians with the clinical skills to understand how substances interact inside lab animals or the human body.

In terms of drug discovery, medicinal chemists make vital contributions through their pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics studies in the early stages. Their work includes tracking new compounds through the ADME cycle (administration, distribution, metabolism and excretion).

According to Gilles Courtemanche, Head of the Antimicrobials Unit at the Bioaster Technology Research Institute in France, “that means training people, establishing laboratories and setting up specialized services.” Currently, Brazilian universities find themselves paying for ADME tests by commercial providers because they do not have the skills in-house, and skills aren’t retained because much of the basic testing is carried out by grad students who move on after completing their PhDs.

Kinase  biology will be key to biotech cluster at Campinas

Medicinal chemists are crucial to new drug discovery

The lack of specialized services to test the hits found by Brazilian principal investigators was also highlighted by Carlos Roque Duarte Correia, a professor at UNICAMP and a staff member of the Center for Research and Innovation in Biodiversity and Drug Discovery (CIBFar).

Shortfalls in the indigenous skill-base in medicinal chemistry could imperil the strategy of nurturing pharma clusters such as the nascent Campinas project where academic departments and contract research organisations work closely together. This strategy is epitomised by the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) supported by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP.) In fact, the Campinas event was supported by FAPESP and attended by 87 students in the three main areas involved in drug discovery: chemistry; pharmacology and animal models; and parasitology and screening for new biologically active compounds.

Ronaldo Pilli, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Chemistry Institute (IQ-UNICAMP), warned that without a strong supply of medicinal chemists, Brazil will not be able to strengthen its medicinal chemistry sector. But for trained professionals in this sector, demand from the pharmaceutical industry will be strong.

While it’s natural to suppose that developed countries will provide the model of cooperation between academic and commercial drug discovery sectors, there is an example much closer to home that Brazil could usefully learn from.

Mexico’s scientific research foundation CONICET has begun to address exactly the same shortfall in the country’s pharma industry jobs pipeline by developing a hybrid MD/PhD programme to help medical doctors acquire lab research skills.

Skills bottleneck could be resolved  through international partnerships.

Skills bottleneck could be resolved through international partnerships.

CONICET is working with the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford to deliver a four-year sandwich programme for Mexican medics who leave with a DPhil fro Britain’s premier university. Then they receive clinical training and MD certification from Mexican universities and medical schools.

Thanks to intensive cooperation programmes developed by FAPESP with leading European research councils and universities, Brazil has the means to resolve this skills bottleneck. FAPESP and CONICET also have bilateral relationships. So Brazilian medical students could certainly follow in the footsteps of the Mexican colleagues, to receive pharmacology and lab skills training at Oxford.

Such a programme could resolve the looming bottleneck threatening the development of a Brazilian pharma industry.

The attendees at the Campinas workshop included students from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria and Pakistan, as well as students from several Latin American and European countries.

You can read a complete report of the Campinas medical conference written by Brazilian journalist Karina Toledo by clicking here.

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