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An Undergrad PGx Program Forms Under Co-creator Alan McKay of Shenandoah


At A Glance

Name: Alan McKay

Position: Dean of the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy, Shenandoah University, 1995-present

Background: Chairman of the Department of Pharmaceutical Practice, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Littlerock, 1990-1995

Associate Professor in Pharmacy Administration, University of Maryland

Education: PhD in Health Care Administration, University of Mississippi, 1979

This week, George Washington University and Shenandoah University announced the formation of a new joint baccalaureate program in pharmacogenomics, perhaps the first of its kind in the nation. Situated in the Virginia high-tech corridor, the program might benefit from a high concentration of biotechnology expertise, and may produce a specialized, educated workforce for organizations pursuing personalized medicine.

Pharmacogenomics Reporter spoke with Alan McKay, the dean of Shenandoah University's Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy who, along with George Washington University's Jean Johnson, senior associate dean in Health Sciences, was closely involved with the program's formation, about its structure and goals.

How is the new pharmacogenomics program going to be structured?

This is what's referred to in academic circles as a career pathway — it doesn't have one single termination point, it has multiple points where a person who has fulfilled their educational goals can bail out and still earn a very good living.

As you well know, 14 percent of the people that are employed in the biotech industry are at the associate degree or lower, which means that the majority of people have a baccalaureate degree or higher. If you have a baccalaureate degree and work in a biotech area, your salary is about $26,000 annually more than someone else who has a comparable degree and does not work in the biotech industry.

So one of the things that we're targeting with [George Washington] is bringing students who have a strong interest in being in pharmacogenomics or working for the pharmaceutical industry into a pathway — that allows them if they want to — to get a baccalaureate degree, move off into graduate school, or into the industry itself. They can [also] go into medical school with that background, because it will be a very strong science background, or they can continue into [the field of] pharmacy, which has its own unique rewards, and the salary structure there is even more rewarding.

In the printed material from Shenandoah and George Washington, the program is clearly presented to accept students after a second year of community college — it is also intended to accept junior-year students from the two universities, right?

Exactly. The way we've got this thing structured, is we worked out our arrangement first. So [George Washington] and Shenandoah University — the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy — came to an understanding about how we could share responsibility for this rather unique baccalaureate degree that would then overlap with the pharmacy program.

We then turned around and started talking to other educational institutions — including high schools — about how they could feed into this unique degree pathway. And we have had conversations with Northern Virginia Community College, and Lord Fairfax Community College, both of which are very strongly interested in the influence of the biotech industry and the willingness of that industry to hire their graduates.

So, we've talked to them, we've talked to a magnet school that is developing in Northern Virginia out of funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that would focus on biotechnology, and we're talking to educational leaders in the Shenandoah Valley who are in the beginning stages of developing a proposal for a governor's school that would focus on high tech.

What sort of response have you gotten from companies and other organizations in the pharmacogenomics industry?

We haven't started talking to the industry per se. You have to realize that this whole proposal began about 18 months ago — so we have moved very rapidly in educational terms to reach agreement between the different educational institutions.

The next step is to start reaching out to the industry that would employ these individuals, but also might provide the educational content for this program. Both [George Washington] — even though they have a genomics program — and Shenandoah — with our pharmacy program that focuses on technology — recognize that this is a very dynamic field, and that you're only going to be able to have some of the resources necessary to teach the content effectively. The rest of it is going to have to come from scientists with [the US National Institutes of Health], regulators with the [US Food and Drug Administration], and individuals who work with the various biopharmaceutical companies in Northern Virginia, of which there are about 23 to 28.

So we're going to be putting content together from a variety of sources, and obviously as we move down that pathway, we're going to be contacting the pharmacogenomics industry and enlisting their aid in developing this cadre of highly skilled individuals that one day would meet their needs for a workforce.

When does the program officially open?

The program is officially enrolling students now. The first [third BS] students would be enrolled in the fall of 2005. They would begin the first year of pharmacy school and the last year of this BS program in the fall of 2006.

If they choose to continue through the pharmacy pathway, they would graduate with a doctor of pharmacy degree and expertise in pharmacogenomics in the Spring of 2010.

Who are the first members of industry that you are going to contact?

We're going to start with what's locally available. We've been attending Virginia [Biotechnology Industry Organization] meetings — I think it's going to evolve into the Mid-Atlantic BIO meeting.

We have been talking with Terry Woodward, who is our science liason with the Center for Innovative Technology, which is a Virginia-based development group. And we're making some contacts with the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

So, we're in the process of beginning to initiate the development of a network, and we will have 11 faculty and staff positioned in Northern Virginia — a portion of their responsibility will be finding these individuals.

What are you going to teach these students during the final year of the program, which is also the first year of the pharmacy program?

We have talked to [George Washington] about creating several new courses. [George Washington] is actually going to be creating in that [third BS] year a course on genomics in medicine and pharmacy. That will be a new course for them — it will draw on the talents of some of the scientists who populate the genomics institute that was started through the McCormack Foudation.

Then in the [fourth BS] year, we're going to create a new course, the development of which is being funded by the Merck foundation that is going to be 'The Essentials of Pharmacogenomics.'

So this goes beyond the genetics of drug-metabolism enzymes?

That is correct.

But I imagine that will be integral?

Exactly. And we plan to capture that material, since a lot of it will be delivered using teleconferencing. And we already have a well-established procedure for capturing web-based material and converting that into knowledge bases. We're going to be packaging that for redistribution to other pharmacy schools and to professional organizations that want to develop certificate training for their members.

How many students are enrolled already?

We enroll 75 students in the pharmacy program every year. The anticipated enrollment for this program would be 50 students in the first year, of which we're anticipating about 35 would continue on into pharmacy school.

Where is the majority of the program going to be located?

The [third BS] and [fourth BS] year will be at the George Washington University campus in Ashburn, Virginia, which is smack in the middle of the high-tech corridor.

The second two years of the program, should they elect to go into pharmacy, the pharmacy 2 and 3 years will be located here in Winchester, which is about 55 miles away. And the last year, which is largely experiential, will be back at Northern Virginia, using sites there.

Can you name any of the companies in the area?

You have Lilly, which has created a large facility in Manasses to develop a drug product, and Merck has recently announced that they're expanding their facility in Elkton, Virginia that will be engaged in developing vaccines. So those are some of the major players in the area.

But what we anticipate doing is working not only with the drug industry, but also with the regulators and the science groups. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is bringing 320 scientists to a new campus on the banks of the Potomac River that will only be about three miles from where our students will be located. In the past what they've done is, they've funded research at local colleges and institutions — they're now changing their strategy to bring those scientists to one campus. And they will about three miles from where our campus will be.

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