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Pharmaceutical Scientist

The role of the pharmaceutical scientist in drug discovery and development is highly varied. Duties range from the synthesis of novel compounds designed to alter disease processes, to the formulation of these compounds into a tablet or capsule, to the development of assays (tests) to measure the drug and its metabolites in the body, to the testing of compounds for their effects in animals and humans. In addition, scientists in this industry pursue more basic questions, such as which genes or processes are critical in disease, as well as better ways to diagnose disease and predict clinical outcomes of treatment strategies. While the pharmaceutical industry employs thousands of chemists and biologists, the skills needed to work in the pharmaceutical industry are much broader and are being substantially changed by the infusion of genetics and genomics into the drug development process. Therefore those interested in a scientific career in the pharmaceutical industry should seriously consider training in the important areas of genetics and genomics.

The drug development processes can be divided into three major sections: research, where compounds are synthesized and tested against potential drug targets and for activity in animal models of disease; preclinical safety, where the compounds are analyzed for their potential toxicity in the laboratory and in animal model studies; and manufacturing of clinical-grade material and testing in human clinical trials. Individuals with a range of skills in chemistry, biology, manufacturing, and clinical sciences are very important. However, it is not limited to these areas, since the pharmaceutical industry employs most types of scientists. The increasing amount of genome sequence available at the present time has generated a need for individuals trained in bioinformatics. These scientists use computational methods to answer biological questions, particularly methods involving massive amounts of data produced by the field of genomics. In addition, scientific expertise is needed in many of the support areas of the drug development process, including the business, legal, and regulatory aspects. As a consequence, the training, skills, and qualifications needed for work in the industry are very broad and varied.

Beginning at the technical level with a college degree, there is a variety of entry-level positions in all areas of drug development. Opportunities also exist for individuals to work on postgraduate degrees within a pharmaceutical company, and there are many options for conducting postdoctoral research throughout the industry. Naturally, the work environment varies as much as the types of positions. Pharmaceutical scientists are typically based in the laboratory, manufacturing facility, or office. Those working on clinical trial design will typically work from corporate offices and then implement the patient treatment with investigators at universities or clinics, rather than actually conducting the patient research themselves.

Due to the wide variety and types of positions in this global industry, salary ranges are very broad. Historically, pharmaceutical scientists receive competitive salaries and they may also receive cash or stock bonuses. The pharmaceutical industry is oriented toward extremely high-quality research that leads to new treatments for people in need. Successful scientific work leads to useful drugs that benefit patients as well as the company that develops them. Therefore, the success of pharmaceutical scientists is tied to the degree to which their work benefits patients and to the degree of financial success achieved by the company as a whole.

A career as a pharmaceutical scientist can be exceptionally rewarding. It provides the professional with an opportunity to participate in a team that seeks to discover useful new drugs. There is satisfaction in knowing that, when approved and sold on the market, such a discovery can help millions of people for years to come. In addition, pharmaceutical scientists have the opportunity to work in cutting edge areas, using new methods for studying genetics in clinical trials. One such field of study, called pharmacogenetics, examines the reasons that individuals have different responses to the same drug. This area of study is expected to greatly improve the understanding of how drugs work and enable physicians to prescribe them to those who are most likely to benefit, while minimizing the risk of adverse reactions.

Kenneth W. Culver

and Mark A. Labow

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 3