Young Women In Bio-Southern California (YWIB-Southern California) was delighted to partner with Ferring Pharmaceuticals in San Diego to host “Discovering Drug Development!” This program was specifically for the summer interns from Scripps Research Institute, who are uniquely taking part in virtual internships from the comfort of their homes all across the country.
20 students logged into Zoom, where they were greeted by the Chair of YWIB-Southern California, Kristina Herbert, Ph. D., who provided a brief introduction to YWIB. She said, “YWIB gives girls today the inspiration and support they need to become tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).” She emphasized that YWIB strives to provide education and hands-on experiences in STEM and share our passion for all scientific fields, making these activities and workshops available to all students, regardless of gender. However, the mission is to bridge the gender gap in STEM by highlighting successful female scientists that can serve as role models for young women hoping to pursue STEM. She expressed enthusiasm that the new virtual format for events would allow YWIB to reach even more students in the future, potentially not located near one of YWIB’s 13 chapters in North America. Dr. Herbert encouraged participants to attend virtual events hosted by any of these chapters and to explore the various events already available for viewing on the YWIB YouTube channel.
Dr. Jolene Lau, Ph.D., a senior research analyst at Ferring, then welcomed the Scripps interns virtually to the San Diego Ferring site. She shared with students that her own path to Ferring had also involved time at Scripps Research Institute. She researched recombinant viral nanoparticles to earn her Ph. D. in Chemistry. Dr. Lau then provided a quick, but thorough, overview of Ferring the company, the business of drug research and development, the breadth of molecules that are used as drugs, and how these are optimized.
Founded in 1950, Ferring is a privately owned, research-driven specialty biopharmaceutical group headquartered in Switzerland. With a global presence in over 110 countries worldwide, the San Diego based Ferring group is one of 13 research and development centres worldwide, and they specialize in developing drugs for reproductive medicine and maternal health, gastroenterology, and urology. While the San Diego site specializes in preclinical development, Dr. Lau provided an overview of the path a drug must traverse to market. She underscored the types of data that are collected within each phase of a clinical trial, the percentage of drugs that advance through each phase, the number of patients involved in each clinical trial, and the average cost per patient of these trials. The total to bring a drug to market was ~$1.4 billion. Even then she showed that many drugs may not succeed on the market for the following reasons:
- Poor timing, perhaps a drug that performs equally well, was available earlier.
- The drug does not perform better than previous drugs, one only finds out how well the drug performs compared to the current standard of care in phase III trials after significant investment.
- Low patient or doctor interest, the drug must provide a significant advantage over the current standard of care.
- Poor business decisions, i.e. pricing blunders or poor marketing strategies.
Because of the significant investment in developing a drug, if it makes it successfully to market, the innovating drug developer is provided a certain level of patent and regulatory protection before generic manufacturers can launch their own products. Given the focus on research and development at the San Diego site, Dr. Lau highlighted that the reinvestment into research and development is a necessity across not just the pharmaceutical industry, but all innovation and technology-driven fields.
Dr. Lau then expressed her regret that the students were not able to break off into groups to tour the laboratories at Ferring but showed some photos of scientists in the labs. She provided a brief description of the cyclic preclinical drug development process pursued at the San Diego site. First, chemists will work to design and synthesize molecules that might become drugs. These molecules will be tested within in vitro biological assays to find the molecules that give the desired result. Those that function in in vitro assays are then optimized for their pharmacokinetic properties, or how they break down in the body, before testing within in vivo animal models to determine whether the drugs improve the symptoms of disease. Molecules may return to the chemists to be redesigned and optimized at any of these multiple steps.
After this incredible summary of the drug development process, the program transitioned to a career panel, moderated by Dr. Herbert. In addition to Dr. Lau, the panel was composed of two additional accomplished women working in different capacities at the San Diego Ferring site. Students were first introduced to Erica Schoeller, Ph.D., a research scientist who works to identify new drug targets in the reproductive medicine and maternal health therapeutic area. As the one panelist that works at the bench, she spoke to the difficulties in conducting lab work in this time of COVID-19. While she does go into the lab, her time there is limited and focused on getting tasks done. She expressed that she misses the ability to interact and discuss science with colleagues casually.
On the other hand, Mimika Koletsou, MS, MBA, a senior informatics analyst, currently the business lead for a drug discovery data project and a core member of the global R&D data strategy team, described how the current pandemic has broken down some barriers. With virtual meetings and working from home now the norm, the colleagues she works with from many of Ferring’s sites around the world no longer seem so distant. There is a new sense that everybody is in the same boat; working with remote colleagues is no different than working with somebody on the other side of the country or ocean. Dr. Lau, who students had already heard from, then looked into her day-to-day as a senior analyst. She described that her position entails providing scientific and competitive intelligence to drug discovery teams at Ferring. Thus, she does a lot of reading and computer searches like a detective to uncover articles and information to support her colleagues across multiple therapeutic areas. This work requires her to, rather than be very focused, have extremely broad expertise across the many areas that Ferring works.
There were several important takeaways from the panel discussion. First, the recent advances in technology and regulations requiring data sharing have led to a wealth of available and easily accessible data. Additionally, new experimental techniques and easy access to kits and cell lines mean that research can progress faster. Thus, the volume of papers published has expanded, and we now have easy access to all of these publications. The deluge of information and data available to researchers necessitates that students be versed in data analysis skills that allow them to take advantage of these datasets and/or develop skills to sift through information quickly to avoid data overload. Besides these technical skills, the panelists all agreed that learning to communicate confidently and clearly and is willing to listen with an open mind to people with differing views is essential. Drug development is a team process, and even science in academia is increasingly done in large collaborative teams. Thus, learning to work in groups is essential for a successful career in STEM.
Students were then given an opportunity to hone their teamwork skills by participating in an exercise on drug naming and pitch presentations. Dr. Lau introduced students to the fact that drugs usually have two names, the brand name, and the generic name. The brand name, which is specific to the drug manufacturer, is approved by the FDA, cannot suggest effectiveness, and should not be easily confused with other drug names. Groups were then given eight drug names and indications that they were supposed to pair, without resorting to online searches. Putting themselves in the shoes of a marketing executive and a member of the medical affairs team, they then had to choose one drug with its indication for which to create a marketing tagline and list of benefits to patients, respectively. Teams seemed to use a combination of familiarity with the drugs and simple word association to pair drugs. One team, remarkably, got all eight pairs correct, while another team used stock images found online to convince their peers that their drug was one they wanted to ask their doctor about. The event ended with a Zoom poll to determine the winning marketing tagline and medical affairs groups.
The event was a great success, and everyone expressed their hopes that it can be repeated in the future at Ferring!