Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on the chemistry layoffs that have afflicted us in the drug industry. The piece (by Avery Johnson) focuses on a good example: Bob Sliskovic, the medicinal chemist who first synthesized Lipitor (as in largest-selling-drug-in-the-world Lipitor), and now finds himself laid off by Pfizer:
”Following that initial breakthrough some 20 years ago, Dr. Sliskovic worked on several other research projects, but none panned out. His losing streak mirrors the industry's. A byproduct of the late-19th-century chemical business, pharmaceutical research thrived for more than a century by finding chemical combinations to treat diseases. But after contributing substantially both to human health and drug-industry profits, it has failed to produce significant innovations in recent years.”
That’s a pretty harsh assessment, and I can’t say that I like seeing the past tense of “thrive”. But it’s true that the flow of new drugs has slowed, and now the arguments are all about why that’s happening (and what to do about it). These topics have come up more times than I can count on this site (and will again!), so I won’t go into them in any detail for the moment. But there are plenty of places to lay the blame: Easy drug targets all gone? Too much focus on molecular-level mechanisms and not enough on the end results? Bar now set too high for safety? Management too timid, or too afflicted by short-term thinking? Too much emphasis on blockbusters? Just not enough known about the diseases we’re now trying to treat?
The article makes grim reading for those of us who have been through a layoff or a site closure – I certainly didn’t enjoy mentally revisiting the period a year ago when I (as Sliskovic did) had to phone my wife and tell her that my job was disappearing. And outside of the immediate employment concerns, shutting down a lab is a very sad process:
”In August, Dr. Sliskovic's team stopped doing research and began transferring projects to other Pfizer sites. The labs are now being cleaned, inspected and sealed off. The 177-acre campus is a ghost town of empty rooms and boxed-up equipment.”
Boy, do I know what that looks like. The period before that is even less appealing, when they bring in shredder boxes for people to empty their office filing cabinets into. That’s when you see unusual stuff in the waste bins, such as small piles of plaques and awards that used to be on the desks and walls, since no one feels much like taking any of those home with them. No, I have no desire to relive any of that.
The article raises the question of how many chemists are employed in the drug industry. It’s hard to get a good read on that, but there’s a quote from the Bureau of Labor Statistic that the total number of chemists in the workforce went down from 140,000 to 116,000 over 2003-2006. That doubtless includes a lot of analytical chemists and researchers in other fields than pharmaceuticals, but it’s not a number than can be made to look good. I would think that the ACS would have more specific data, although I know that not all the readers here trust what the organization has to say about chemical employment.
What I can say is that almost all of my colleagues from the Wonder Drug Factory have been able to find jobs. The great majority of the chemists are still doing drug research. Some of them have, though, left the research end of the business, and are working for support companies and vendors. Others have moved over to clinical work or into the medical devices field. A substantial number have, like me, had to move to other parts of the country.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the wave of layoffs ending, although I can’t see them continuing at their current pace, either. There are more large drug companies with problems than there are large companies with secure positions. The WSJ article, for example, has a graph of total head count at Pfizer over the last few years – what’s that one going to look like after Lipitor goes off patent? But offsetting that, to some extent, will be the smaller companies. I continue to think that the pharma research workforce may be shifting away from the largest shops and toward younger companies. Perhaps that’s just because that’s the direction I’ve gone, but then again, I might just be a representative part of a trend. . .