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Farming It Out


If you want to start a major argument among industrial drug discovery chemists, start talking about outsourcing. "It's working out great," some of them will say. "We can farm out all the boring methyl-ethyl- butyl-futile compounds, and just work on the interesting stuff here." "Well, that's just great for those of you who still have jobs," comes one answer, "but what about those of us who've been laid off during all those mergers?" And someone else may well join in by saying "And you know, not all that outsourced chemistry works out the way it's supposed to. Some of those folks are OK, but there are some real hacks out there, too."

Unfortunately, all of those points of view have something to them. And the arguments going on among the chemists are worth paying attention to, because the same issues are starting to spread into the biology labs and beyond. Now, to some degree, outsourced pharmacology has been with us for years — think of the companies that keep dozens of kinase or GPCR assays running and will profile your drug candidates through them for a flat rate. What we haven't seen as much of are drug company projects that farm out key parts of their screening cascade. Could that even happen?

It certainly could. The more early-stage chemistry that gets outsourced, the more it makes sense to have the same external shop go ahead and run those compounds through an early screening assay. Just as with other outsourced work, it'll take some time to build up confidence in that model, but I think that there's money to be made doing it. If the primary assay can't be easily exported, perhaps the compounds can be run through something else to pre-sort them (stability against metabolizing enzymes might be a good candidate). And there's no reason to stop there: any research activity that could be described as "routine" but still has to be done at least partly by hand is a candidate.

The lesson for you

What does this mean for people who are being paid to do these things? Well, it would be prudent to learn from what's been happening over among the medicinal chemists. We've come to realize, for one thing, that this is not a good time to be an average, crank-out-the-compounds chemist. The average stuff can almost always be done more cheaply somewhere else. It's definitely not a good career move to point out how well you can do it here, because that's an argument that can't be won. Instead, you need to show that you have something to offer that isn't available for less in Shanghai or Bangalore.

That means being able to handle the latest sorts of technology, the things that haven't had a chance to become routine yet. Staying up to date is crucial, not only because you show that you have the specific skills to run the new stuff, but that you're also capable of learning whatever new stuff might show up next. (It's even more valuable if you can help to invent that new stuff, of course, so if you've got the talent and the opportunity to do that, by all means let people know about it). And don't let yourself get pigeonholed as the person who always runs that same assay or same piece of equipment. Someone else may end up running them instead of you!

But no matter what you think of it, outsourcing is not going to go away. Companies are going to seek to do things at the lowest cost; it's like water going downhill. But the first thing to do, under such circumstances, is to realize that you're not necessarily standing on level ground.

Derek Lowe is an organic chemist by training who has worked at a number of pharmaceutical companies since 1989. You can check out his blog, In the Pipeline, at

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