Tuesday, June 12, 2007


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(Above: The view across from the bridge at the World Trade Center and Below: The always scenic view across the Charles in front of MIT)

I am finally back from a trip that was both professionally and personally immensely satisfying, and if there's one place I was really sad to leave, it was this one. I can keep on talking about how great a place Boston is- the place where I stayed and the historic places cruise I took around the harbor were just fantastic- but my praise has also been somewhat tempered by two realisations. Firstly, the boss paid the tab which makes it a little easier to have a good time. Secondly, everybody says that it's only in these four months that Boston is the best place on earth. Anytime after that and the enjoyment quickly starts to dwindle because of the pretty nasty weather. So if I could get a part time dream job where I could work in Boston only for four months, that really would be it. Dream on.

One of the good things about this conference was that our patent on a new (potential) anti-cancer compound just got filed days before the conference. That made it possible for me to present the work. The work was well-received, although as is always the case, there's miles to go before we can possibly sleep.

The conference itself was great, and it was held in a scenic location- the World Trade Center by the side of the harbor (although almost everything in Boston seems to be harbor-side). It was the first time I got a preview of what it's like to work in industry. I was happy to see that a camarederie similar to that among academic scientists exists in the pharmaceutical industry too. However, I also got the feeling that that camaraderie is more guarded, and also a little more exclusive. I may possibly have been the only graduate student there among about a hundred participants. I was also surprised to see, perhaps not so surprisingly in retrospect, that folks in industry do almost exactly the same kind of work that we do, at least in the very initial stages of drug design. But where they really get a head start is in validating early models by having massive in-house facilities and personnel for things like pharmacokinetics (investigating the properties of the drug in the body) and x-ray crystallography (having a structure of the drug bound to the protein which it is supposed to inhibit). So they can decide relatively early on whether to pursue or drop a prospective candidate. We are now planning to put our own compounds in animals, and I would have given anything to have a crystal structure and pharmacokinetic data in the early stages when we had the lead. Pharma can do this, and they learn a lot from it.

The downside of working in pharma? You cannot talk! About 60% of the presentations in the conference did not have a single chemical structure in them. In most cases the only structure displayed was an already well-known one. It's really frustrating to be a chemist and not see what are the structural characteristics that are leading to all those tantalizing pieces of biological and clinical data. And it looks like it's only going to get more proprietary. That's the only thing that makes me a little wary of working in pharma, the fact that you often cannot talk to people outside even if you know that they could have the answers to your questions. Also, the fact is that many of the technologies that are now roaring in pharma have their origin in basic science developed in academic labs. I always keep on imagining how much the science--->technology transit time would have been reduced if there could have been collaboration between pharma and those academic labs in the initial stages. Of course there are IP issues, but one cannot help but think about this.

But all in all, a very fruitful experience. I look forward to attending more of this next year.

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Anonymous Ketki said...

Hehe...I completely agree that Boston is this nice only about 3 months of the year. Come October and one harbors serious notions of migrating to California :)

Having been in the US and particularly in Boston for a year now, I have begun to appreciate the effort that is currently being put into bridging the gap between academic research and pharma industries. One example is the financial aid provided by Merck to graduate students in certain programs of research at MIT. The student is allowed to work at both the labs in MIT as well as in the industry in a collaborative manner. Im not quite sure how the IP rights work out in this case, but I would believe that they have some reasonable understanding on this. Several labs in my school too have strong collaborations with pharma industries which allows them to use the in-house facilities available in these industries quite early on in their research.

It saddens me to think of how far India still has to go before such an open and collaborative environment between academia and industry can be set up. Two years ago at IISc, there was a student in our lab who was an employee of Biocon and had been financed by them to obtain his PhD degree at IISc. Half way through his degree Biocon and IISc had some dispute over the IP rights on his work and sadly enough he had to leave IISc with his work unfinished and without a degree.

Another downside of working in Pharma is the very strict rules about recording your daily progress and data. Each employee is required to maintain an up-to-date lab notebook in an established format. It seems that the format is quite complicated that one spends more time maintaining the book than getting work done!

1:55 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

It's sad to hear about the student in IISc. I think India has a very long way to go before such collaborations become routine. In fact, with reservations and the dwindling quality of academic and government science (three well-known scientists I know have recently left national institutes for industry), I don't even know if it will ever happen.
I think the basic point is that we have always had two models of research, industrial and academic, with some overlap in style but still distinct. Maybe a healthy symbiosis between the two is best for making good progress, and this is where we will need to go by breaking barriers.

2:44 PM  

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