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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 14, 2009


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Posted by Derek

Most chemistry departments in the drug industry have some academic consultants who come in every so often. The idea is that they'll have some useful suggestions about synthetic problems (there aren't so many academic consultants who are useful on drug discovery questions as opposed to pure chemistry ones). At the companies where I've worked, the consultants will spend the day in a conference room, while project teams troop in and out with presentations.

How useful this process is varies, to say the least. The first variable is the consultant, because some people are just better at that sort of thing. Ideally, you want someone who has a lot of ideas, has them relatively quickly, and enjoys putting them out for people to comment on them. Not everyone fits that description. While those can all be useful qualities, there are plenty of world-class scientists whose working style doesn't fit those requirements, and these people tend to be less valuable for drop-in sessions.

Another variable is the sorts of problems the drug discovery teams are dealing with. We try, in the industry, to reduce our chemistry to the simplest possible routes. Time is money (and money is money, too), and we always need methods that will reliably crank out plenty of different analogs without a lot of work. When that works, it often doesn't lead to especially exciting chemistry - in fact, the Venn diagram would show that "smoothly running project" and "exciting chemistry" don't overlap much. That means that the projects where things are going fine don't have much to talk about when the consultants appear, and those sessions sometimes end up spending more time on peripheral problems.

Much of the time, too, the biggest problems aren't chemical ones. If you're having trouble with metabolism, tox, or absorption, there aren't going to be many consultants who can help you out. Most of the ones who can are ex-industry people. (And with problems like these, sometimes no one can help you out at all). But asking someone about oral bioavailability when their research is all about interesting new synthetic organic methods is a waste of time - yours and theirs.

I've had some useful and interesting consulting sessions over the years, but some really disastrous ones, too. Many of the latter feature those "Well, now what do we talk about?" moments, which seem to be a cue for Satan to emerge and fill out the hour. So plan ahead. Make sure that you've got plenty to talk about. Actually, you'd better have more than you think you'll need, because some of your topics may either get a fast answer, or an equally fast shrug of the shoulders. . .

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Lucifer on October 14, 2009 9:30 AM writes...

Is it so bad if pharma pays a few more incompetent people?

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2. Sili on October 14, 2009 10:05 AM writes...

I imagine the NDAs would be horrible, but could it be helpful to drag in a bunch of post grad. students? (From suitable groups, of course.)

They should have a lot of specialised knowledge by the time they're about to graduate, and odds are they know more obscure reactions than their supervisors between them by then too.

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3. RB Woodweird on October 14, 2009 10:07 AM writes...

I often do the same kind of consulting internally, and boy is it easier to solve somebody else's chemistry problems than your own. Myself, I try to avoid asking for advice unless it is unofficial. Just remember back to the days when your research advisor would blow into the lab and drop six month's worth of things to do in five offhand minutes, totally destroying your own carefully crafted list.

That said, the best consultant I ever interacted with was Sol Snyder. The guy is a firehose of good tips, sound advice, and thoughtful speculation.

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4. matt on October 14, 2009 10:19 AM writes...

How much are these comsultants paid in company?

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5. You're Pfizered on October 14, 2009 10:39 AM writes...

My two favorite quotes from consultants.

"There was plenty of good chemistry done before Mitsunobu was ever born."


"Amide bonds, you could make those in a drunken stupor..."

Bonus points if anyone gets who these two are.

Favorite answer to a consultant:

"No, I did not titrate my butyl lithium"

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6. Old Timer on October 14, 2009 12:21 PM writes...

The first quote sounds like Danishefsky. Second...Panek? :)

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7. anonymous on October 14, 2009 12:33 PM writes...

I think that many academic consultants are useless as advisors in synthetic routes. The solutions to synthetic problems, when it concerns small molecules, are generally pretty obvious to most self respecting experienced chemists. It is an extremely (and unusually) bright individual who can see a problem for the first time and come up with a solution to it not previously considered by a good team.
I believe the reason chemists in academia are offered consulting jobs (particularly the big name faculty) is to gain access to their best students/postdocs. I heard a director of a small biotech complaining that a faculty member once told him "why should I allow you to recruit from my group? You've done nothing for me, I'm not even a consultant in your company (!!)
With that said, I also have to agree with Lucifer (#1)

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8. Fellow Old-Timer on October 14, 2009 2:02 PM writes...

A favorite Danishefskyism of mine is "LDA is not a reagent a gentleman would use."

It was widely believed in the old days at SK&F that a particular consultant was an informer for the Senior Director of Chemistry.

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9. You're Pfizered on October 14, 2009 2:20 PM writes...

Quote 1 was from Henry Rapoport, same with the answer we used to give him whenever he'd ask if we'd titrated our nBuLi.

The amide bond quote was Les Mitscher.

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10. CMCguy on October 14, 2009 2:48 PM writes...

If you think academic consultants are poor for medchem efforts most are even worse for the process side of things.

#9 Rapoport was an exception/exceptional for both medchem and process side as saw in both contexts, in particular because of sage advice such as you illustrate (which I knew immediately). Always looked forward to sessions with him as felt both humbled and more learned afterward.

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11. Northern_Chemist on October 14, 2009 4:45 PM writes...

My favourite story about consultancy (possibly apocryphal): a younger chemist set himself up as a consultant, and, worrying about his relative lack of experience, set his rate at a very reasonable £500 per day. Getting no business, he was advised to triple his rates to £1500 per day... and the work rolled in.

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12. Hap on October 14, 2009 5:06 PM writes...

If they aren't good for process, then what are academic consultants good for? (I'm used to the ones from synthetic groups, so I would figure that they might have lots of reaction knowledge, and at least some knowledge of the thermodynamics, though probably not so much related to engineering or its thermodynamics.)

I don't know him, but Myers seems like he might be a worthwhile consultant.

It may be stupid, but how did people do alcohol inversions before Mitsunobu? (I assume halide/sulfonate conversions are more prone to elimination, and oxidation/reduction cycles involve potential epimerization/beta-elimination).

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13. Tex on October 14, 2009 5:48 PM writes...

as the old saying goes many consultants in pharma know a lot of different ways to have sex, but don't know any women to introduce you to.

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14. Chemistry Fan on October 14, 2009 6:35 PM writes...

I second #4's question: How much money are consultants paid and how often are they called upon?

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15. Mark on October 14, 2009 6:57 PM writes...

I've had nothing but disappointments when calling on consultants to help with synthetic problems (and a few were very big names).

Usually the suggestions offered were extremely convoluted routes that might have gotten to the desired product, but at that point, even if it did work, the juice just wasn't worth the squeeze.

Or, the suggestion would be as yet unknown chemistry that would be really cool if it worked, but I mean, I can come up with a lot of really cool reactions that might work too. I don't have 3 months to try and make it work.

When I was in process, there were plenty of suggestions using organic azides, unstable organometallics or horribly priced chiral auxillaries.

To be honest, I don't think I've ever seen a single suggestion by a consultant actually pan out.


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16. Renee on October 14, 2009 7:48 PM writes...

I was in one of the last undergraduate organic chemistry classes that Danishefsky ever taught, at the U. of Pittsburgh in 1978. He couldn't stand teaching this course, but he still did a great job (I felt). I think the most infuriating moment for him was the test he gave, in which the average grade was a 36. He was livid. He was/is a great chemist, but could not get a mass of pre-meds to appreciate his greatness.

In my work in industry as a polymer chemist, I didn't find consultants to be much use. Even my professor from grad school wasn't all that useful when he came to call. However, there seemed to be certain of my co-workers who never, ever, missed an opportunity to meet with a consultant. I suppose it gave them a chance to talk on and on about their work, to an apt listener (who was being paid handsomely by the hour). A win/win situation for everyone.

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17. Polymer Bound on October 14, 2009 8:41 PM writes...

At my shop, I find that the quality of a consultant is inversely proportional to age. I think it probably has to do with their distance from the bench and practical chemistry. (with a few exceptions scattered in there to throw off my error bars, of course)

Some of the biggest names are the worst consultants, but they make for good stories.

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18. Jose on October 14, 2009 10:42 PM writes...

I remember hearing $12k for a two day trip, but this could be grossly inflated.

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19. process guru on October 15, 2009 12:15 AM writes...

No doubt the primary reason for hiring big-name academics as 'consultants" was for access to their students. We used to joke that one Nobel-prize winning academic used to get more ideas FROM us than he gave to us. Typical fee used to be $2K/day plus expenses. Usually each came 2-3 times per year when budgets weren't as tight as they are now. Best of the lot was Trost.

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20. London_Chemist on October 15, 2009 6:59 AM writes...

Have to agree with Mark: academic consultants have always been a disappointment. From the prof who said he'd only looked at the problem on the train that morning, to the very emminent UK chemist who completely ignored everything I said, waffled for 10 minutes and then, in a Eureka moment, repeated everything I'd said earlier and claimed it as his own idea.

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21. anon on October 15, 2009 7:19 AM writes...

no. 20 sounds just like my boss!

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22. CMCguy on October 15, 2009 9:35 AM writes...

#21 Could be funny but unfortunately so very true with the majority of bosses I have had and probably how they got there for several.

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23. bitter pill on October 15, 2009 6:36 PM writes...

Man, I miss Henry Rapoport. We had a non stellar chemist who told him a reaction had produced an improbable product. Rap asked him how he knew that was what happened to the material. the response was "I saw it on the Mass spec". Rapoport's response (quoted many times thereafter)"Mass spec? they found life on Mars with a mass spec!

Also loved that he delighted in going thru our office supply closet at the site.

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24. Silas on October 16, 2009 9:31 PM writes...

I have had similar experience as Derek and many others. I used to sign up for the consulting sessions once they were posted. I have to admit that none of the proposals from the big-name professors worked for me. Some of them were not even worth trying unless I wouldn't mind having a bad year-end evaluation from my boss. I have since stopped signing up for those sessions. One nice story about Sharpless a few years ago, on his final shift one day we asked a question and got some thoughts from him, he was then escorted by a colleague to a park lot for his limo ride to the airport. After about 15-20 minutes, he was led back to our lab because he just had a new idea for us.

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25. drug_hunter on October 17, 2009 8:08 AM writes...

In my experience, there are two benefits to having consultants come in that have nothing to do with whether they can ultimate provide good suggestions for the teams.

(1) The very process of teams preparing to describe their projects for big-name consultants serves a useful purpose. Kind of the same way that writing a paper forces you to confront all the weaknesses in your thinking and your experiments.

(2) The actual presentations are great experience for younger scientists.

If, beyond these two benefits, the consultants actually provide great advice, that's just gravy.

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26. madscientist on October 19, 2009 8:57 AM writes...

At one of my previous pharmaceutical employers (that also no longer exists due to the feeding frenzy), we had an old consultant visit every 2 months who would just listen and watch as we presented our work and synthetic problems. He would then respond with "That's really nice chemistry......", feed us a few more compliments, and that was the extent of his contributions. I know that they paid big bucks for that ego massaging time-suck.

On the other hand, we also used Andy Kende, who was a virtual, 2-legged Beilstein.

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