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About this Author
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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 12, 2007

Med-Chem Layoffs, On the Front Page

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Posted by Derek

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. . .

Comments (44) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Closing Time | Drug Industry History

June 6, 2007

Massachusetts Moving

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Posted by Derek

And while I'm on the subject of that last post, I wanted to make a quick appeal to the readership. My new position will be taking me to the research-happy Greater Boston area, which I'm looking forward to. At the same time, though, there are the usual moving issues - balancing commuting, real estate, and schools for the kids.

I'd be very glad to hear from readers with personal experience with the towns, schools (and roads!) of that part of Massachusetts. My wife and I have some ideas of where we'd like to start looking, but I'd like to get as much reality into the hopper as possible. The e-mail address is up there on the left - thanks!

(Oh, and if anyone's looking for a nice house in the New Haven area, give me another week or two and I'll have something to show you. . .!)

Comments (38) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

A Post I've Been Looking Forward to For Months

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Posted by Derek

I'm very glad to announce that I've accepted an offer of a new research position. Thus ends a stretch of unemployment that began officially at the end of January, with warning having been served the previous November. That explains the somewhat irregular recent schedule of this blog - I've been wrestling with several offer and relocation issues simultaneously, which is not such a bad problem for someone in my situation.

I'll be starting in the early part of July, and I'm very much looking forward to getting back into the business. My jobless period hasn't been as hard to take as I'd feared, but I can see how it would tend to wear on a person - for example, my severance pay runs out right about now, and facing that milestone without prospect of employment would have been no fun at all. Looking back, March was probably the low point, since by then I'd been searching for a while with no great success. The serious job prospects came into view in April and May.

This position will require a move, though - that's one thing I was hoping to avoid, but the nearby pharmaceutical industry had (and still has) no spare place for someone like me. I was ready to take on some 50 mile commutes to stay, but you can't commute to a job that isn't there. A great many of my colleagues (including almost all the chemistry PhDs) have had to do the same eventually, from one or two states over to across the country.

I believe that I'm one of the last of the Wonder Drug Factory chemists to find employment. I'm glad that I waited, since the position I'm headed to looks like a very good one, with opportunities to do officially what I sometimes had to do on the side. The home office of the WDF may have ended up doing me a favor by evaporating my former job, not that they had any such intention.

It's a bit unsettling for me to realize, though, how much my search was helped out by things that had no official connection to my old position - this blog, for one thing. I had calls directly from some of its readers, and in other cases it was a valuable piece of evidence that I'd been keeping up with a wide range of issues in the field. And as for my experience, when it came time for interviews, I found in more than one case that work that I'd taken on outside my formal responsibilities did me a lot of good. Of course, I've got an appropriately long CV full of what I'm supposed to have been doing all this time. But I can't help thinking that, in this market, years of doing only what I'm supposed to have been doing would have been necessary, but not sufficient. Food for thought.

BTW, I'm looking for some reader input if you're in the Boston area - see the next post - thanks!

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

April 12, 2007

Layoffs - Again

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Posted by Derek

I've heard from more than one source that Pfizer has laid off a large number of research staff this week in Groton. This seems to have taken people by surprise in many cases, since the expectation was just that everyone would find out where they were on the new organization charts. Well, in a way, they did.

As mentioned in a comment to this post, the company seems to want to get more people out in the lab. They're aiming for a 4:1 ratio of associates to PhDs in chemistry, where the cuts seem to have been deeper. That would (to my knowledge) probably be the highest average ratio in the industry. Pfizer seems to be approaching this through both the numerator and the denominator: I've heard of associate-level chemists who had CVs in with the company getting recent messages about some planned hiring.

But for now, there are more researchers (chemistry and biology) out of work. The Northeast, I have to say, is getting rather saturated with drug industry job-seekers. The region is still processing my own site's closure, so I have a great deal of sympathy with the Pfizer folks who are being turned out now.

Comments (47) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Closing Time | Current Events

March 11, 2007

More Help Wanted?

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Posted by Derek

Back in November, I announced the impending closure of the Wonder Drug Factory, and there were plenty of people who responded with news of open positions. My colleagues and I really appreciated it - a number of interviews (and some placements) resulted.

Since then, many of the folks I worked with have found a place to land. That said, there are still a number of us who are looking, and one common factor has been length of experience. Among my med-chem colleagues, the ease of re-employment has been pretty closely correlated with job level. Associates have been largely snapped up. Less-experienced PhDs have had a harder time, but are gradually finding positions. "And then," he said, "there are people like me. . ."

Well, I do have some possible prospects, but some of them aren't going to be resolved for a while yet, so there's nothing concrete yet. I would, in these circumstances, be very glad to hear of positions that I've missed, both for my own use and for my former co-workers. The people that I know are still looking are experienced med-chem project and group leaders, higher-level people in HTS and assay development, and some experienced pharmacology/biology lab heads. They're all worth talking to if your company has a need - just send along an email and we'll take it from there.

There are a number of companies with advertised positions at these levels (Biogen/Idec, Sepracor, AstraZeneca, Wyeth, Novartis, and others). Of course, when these things are listed, everyone knows what kind of slushy tidal wave of applications hits the HR offices. Any readers at such places who believe that they might be able to help out from the inside (making sure that CVs get to the right hands, etc.) are also welcome to write. Big Pharma, Small Pharma, Biotech - everyone's welcome. And thanks (again) to everyone who's written so far. We'll get everybody employed yet.

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

February 28, 2007

Have We Got a Job For You!

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Posted by Derek

Since I'm still on the job-hunting trail, after the events described here, I think I'd find it a bit therapeutic to complain about one part of the process that's a complete waste of time.

Now, there are open positions that are advertised, both online and in the various science and trade publications, and there are some that are handled mostly by recruiters. I'm working both of those, naturally, since at my level of experience it's generally harder to find a position. Friends of friends, former colleagues, company websites, online job boards, headhunters of every description - if this isn't the time to pull out all the stops, when is?

But there are recruiters, and there are recruiters. I've spoken with several who really seem to know their business, and I'm glad to have had the chance to contact them. But I've also spoken with several who don't seem to have the first idea of what they're doing. Let's just say that I've been pitched more than enough positions for "Formulations Chemist" and "Clinical Research Data Scientist" and God only knows what else. There are so many things wrong about these inquiries that I hardly know where to start.

For one thing, it shows that either the recruiter involved knows nothing about the industry, or they haven't even looked at my CV - and it's a good question as to which of those is a worse sign. I've had headhunters confidently forward me positions that focus on, say, developing generic injectables: what in my background makes that even remotely a match, unless all the other resumes they have on hand are from Linux developers and salespeople? The other day, I had someone pitch me a job that, while actually in medicinal chemistry, was at a level I wouldn't have interviewed for in 1992, much less now. And they seemed surprised that I wasn't considering it seriously.

Another problem with these is what's happening on the other end. Here's some company, paying a search firm to go out and beat the bushes for them, but the outfit's actually just randomly hitting up everyone who's walked across a drug company parking lot. You wonder what kind of progress reports these people are submitting on how their trained placement professionals are on the case, as in the background someone sits on the phone asking a cell biologist if they've ever considered running a mass spec lab. "Hello. . .hello? Cut off again. . ."

Well, at any rate, there are some good ones out there. But they sure stand out against the background.

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time | How To Get a Pharma Job

February 5, 2007

A Break, Whether I Felt Like It Or Not

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Posted by Derek

So begins my first week without employment since the late 1980s. And I'm not sure that that period counts, since it was just after my postdoc ended and I was looking for my first real job. I had a Humboldt fellowship in Germany - West Germany at the time, of course - and I'd tried sending letters from there back to potential employers in the US. I should have taken all of them and buried them under a rock by the light of the full moon - it wouldn't have produced any fewer results. I realized what was happening after a while, and prepared another thick pile of envelopes for my return. Once in a US airport, I promptly mailed them out, and then the phone began to ring at last.

I feel rather cut off from things, I have to say, because I'm used to constant SciFinder access and plenty of online journal subscriptions. There's not much I can do about either one of those, though - SciFinder's rates are astronomical for what-you-want when-you-want searching, for example, which makes me glad that I used the service so heavily while I had access to it. And I also feel cut off from doing what I usually do - think up weird research ideas and test them out. The burst of activity I detailed here is the last time I've been in the lab, well, other than to throw an awful lot of stuff away.

What will be interesting will be seeing what kinds of ideas I get after this break. Rather than going rusty, my guess is that I'll have some interesting stuff built up and ready to go. I've written about how one of the things that I disliked about graduate school was the constant, forced attention on one single project and problem. Situations like that have always done me harm when they've gone on too long - here's hoping that this one will do me good.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

January 29, 2007

Open For Business

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Posted by Derek

Tuesday is my last day at the Wonder Drug Factory. I've been hauling out boxes, emptying the freezer, signing forms, and shaking a lot of hands.

I don't have anything lined up immediately, although I'm pursuing a couple of possibilities. My hope is to stay in Connecticut (I live near New Haven), but that narrows things down quite a bit. As I run through the possibilities, I'll be opening up the search toward the mighty vortex of Boston and Cambridge if need be.

For now, in my between-jobs phase, I'd like to announce that I'm available as a consultant. I have over seventeen years of drug discovery experience that I'd be glad to use on the behalf of anyone who feels that it might be valuable. I won't be bringing in any proprietary information from my recent projects, naturally - I'm respecting the Wonder Drug Factory's IP, in the same way that I'll respect that of anyone else who hires me on.

I can probably do the most good in the preclinical stages (while I've taken many compounds to the clinic, I haven't been the person responsible for getting them through). There have been some inquiries already, I'm glad to say, which prompts me to hang out the sign officially. Please feel free to contact me at derek-lowe@sbcglobal.net.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

January 12, 2007

Ghost Town

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Posted by Derek

I'm nearly finished with two manuscripts to send out before departing the Wonder Drug Factory. One is the last paper from an earlier project - it's interesting stuff, but now I'm one of the last people on the author list who's still (nominally) with the company. Everyone else left (or was laid off) even before the final act. The other paper is the "Vial Thirty-Three" work, which has been a fair amount of work to bring together. But it makes a pretty good story now that I see it in one place, and I'm very hopeful of finding a good home for it in a high-end journal.

These will both be going out very soon, mainly because I'll be going out very soon myself. The last possible day for anyone in research is January 31, but the site is well on its way to emptying out already. As you go down the halls, there are people scattered here and there at desks, working on presentations or finishing up manuscripts or notebooks. But there are more empty spots than occupied ones, and the labs themselves are almost all darkened. It's an odd sight - like a perpetual 6 AM. You feel like you're the first one in the place all day long.

Some folks have found positions, others are out interviewing, and others are still waiting for the phone to ring - but not all of that needs to be done from work, clearly. Between the departures and the people who have no need to show up, the research organization that used to be here is now like a box of marbles spilled on the floor. The really difficult trick would be rounding everyone up again. One side effect of all this is that all of us are going to end up with contacts all over the industry, which could certainly come in useful. (The networking sites like LinkedIn are filling up with ex-Wonder Drug employee profiles these days, including mine).

I've polished off my notebooks and done some lab cleanup, but the rest of the lab (and most of my office) have been waiting on these manuscripts. Now that they're nearly ready to submit, it's about time to empty out the file cabinets and clean off the shelves. The end is most definitely in sight. And like a lot of people around here, I'm more than ready for the beginning of something else.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

January 2, 2007

Out With the Old

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Posted by Derek

Now this is a new experience for me. Starting off the new year in the lab has usually been a time for me to clean up the office and bench and think about what I'm getting done (and how that matches up, if at all, with what I should be doing). And I'm doing all that - more of them than ever - but doing it in a research site that's shutting down does turn up the contrast a bit.

Officially, my last day here is at the end of the month. People are more or less free to go, however, if they've completed all their close-out tasks. I'm only partway through, but even so, I certainly don't anticipate making it all the way through January here in this office. Iit's actually nice to know that, rather than just wondering if it's going to be that way or not. Outside of the standard checklist, the main things I need to have done are to finish up a couple of papers (Vial Thirty-Three and another one) and to make sure I've got a coherent interview talk ready to go.

Said office, rather than just being cleaned up, is looking downright Spartan these days, especially since I took all my plants home before Christmas. (I have a large window here, so the orchids are now under a grow-light at home to ease the transition). The shelves are being cleared to an unnatural state, too, and it obvious the minute I open the door that something big is up.

The lab, for its part, looks identical to the last day I worked in it (which may well have been the last day anyone here worked in the lab, because I really pushed it). But that's going to start changing today. The afternoon will be for attacking the bench, and the morning is for writing manuscripts. If I need a break, I can sign notebook pages or see which of my files should be tossed out due to age or irrelevance.

Every year, you wonder how different the new one will be from the old. For me, the fix is in.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

December 28, 2006

Cleans Down to What Should Be the Shine

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Posted by Derek

One of the main things I'm going to have to do when I get back to my lab is clean it up. That's not something that I spend much time on, under ordinary conditions. For one thing, I don't run as many reactions as I used to, so it doesn't get dirty as fast. But I'm not someone who makes a clean lab bench my goal at the end of each working day, that's for sure. There are messier people at the Wonder Drug Factory, but there are neater, too.

In fact, I distrust lab benches that look as if you could safely make a sandwich on them. Those, as far as I can see, indicate too much cleaning and not enough real work - or, in the larger sense, too much of a concern for appearances at the expense of what matters. You don't want your lab bench to be a tourist attraction (or a standing joke), much less a safety hazard. But it doesn't (shouldn't!) be a showpiece, either, because to people who really understand the way research works, you're sending the wrong message.

I remember straightening up my lab once at a former job, and afterwards I noticed several people outside in the hall near my door. "What are you people doing loitering around?" I called out, and Stu McCombie (yep, that McCombie - he worked down the hall from me) answered "We're taking bets on how long your lab is going to look like that!"

"Well," I told him, "as soon as I start doing some real work in here it's going to go straight downhill." "That's what makes it a sporting bet," said Stu, "No one know when that's going to be!"

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time | Life in the Drug Labs

December 19, 2006

Hi, My Name Is [...]

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Posted by Derek

I've had several inquiries about how the job hunt is going. Actually I'm not expecting a lot of news until well after the first of the year. Many of my lab associate colleagues are getting hired already, which is good to see. But it takes longer to decide to bring on someone in my position, whose duties are both more expensive, in theory more critical, and in practice certainly less well-defined than those of a Master's-level chemist. And, of course, there are just fewer such positions to be had in general.

Still, I'm going to be out today talking with some folks about how eminently employable I am, which is a good start. A number of companies in the area are coming over to check out the sudden release of talent from the Wonder Drug Factory - I'm picturing something like a rugby scrum, but with everyone wearing better clothing. I've also had several interesting calls from readers, both in and near the biotech/pharma industry, with opportunities that likely wouldn't have come my way if I hadn't been writing this site over the last few years. I'd hoped that would be the case, and my fellow researchers will appreciate the less-frequent-than-you'd-think experience of being right about something.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time

November 21, 2006

The Paper Mountain

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Posted by Derek

Another thing a large research site has, and in mighty impressive quantities, is paper. Something's got to be done with it, but not all laboratory paper is created equal.

Of course, a lot of the mass represents hard copies of files that exist in digital form. Non-proprietary stuff (journal articles that are no longer needed, etc.) will go into big recycling bins to be handled by guys who really have some long days ahead of them. A serious office move (and this is about as serious as it gets) is a good chance to toss ancient literature folders whose contents have become outdated. I just heaved out a pile of that stuff the other day, since I don't thing that 1991 reviews of Alzheimer's pathology are going to come back into fashion. I also had a bunch of miscellaneous hard copies of the Journal of Organic Chemistry from the early 1990s stuffed into a file cabinet - out they went. They were joined by old copies of C&E News, local phone books, 3-ring binder contents of short courses whose contents I don't expect to ever need, and a pile of chemical company and lab equipment catalogs.

Pages with proprietary data on them are a different matter. They're to be tossed in a special shredder box, to be picked up later by some other guys who are also going to earn their money. There are trailer-size portable shredder operations that you can hire for occasions like this. Compound lists, graphs of in vivo activity, photocopies of notebook procedures, handouts from project meetings - all that stuff is headed down this path. Different people save different amounts of this material. I save all the computer files, but heave most of the paper when a project finishes up, so I don't have as much in this category.

Things like printed NMR spectra used to be in a special category, because back in the days of expensive digital storage the hard copy was all you had. I guarded my NMR spectra pile fiercely in grad school, since I was going to need that data to get out of there. And in my first years in the industry, digital archiving was spotty. Now that gigabytes are carried around on key chains, all spectral data are automatically archived, so hard copies are just a convenience.

At the top of the paper mountain are lab notebooks. We switched over to an electronic notebook system a few years ago, but it didn't relieve us of the obligation of keeping a hard copy. Printouts are to be taped into the good ol' notebooks, and signed and witnesses just like the handwritten pages of yore. That's a legal requirement, and scientists at research sites across this great nation are regularly harangued about keeping up to date on it. It does little good. Researchers are just not wired to get things countersigned on a regular basis.

That can lead to some real problems for US patents in particular. We're still a "first to invent" country, while the rest of the world is mostly "first to file". And if you get in an argument about the date of an invention, well, lab notebooks are probably where you're going to end up. An invention that isn't signed and witnessed until a year or so later isn't going to help much in that situation. Admittedly, it's rare that things get to that point, but when they do it means that serious money is at stake.

So no one's throwing away any notebooks, that's for sure. And we're all getting them up to date, signed off on, etc. Companies keep track of every extant lab notebook - they're all numbered, and completed ones no longer in immediate use are kept under lock and key. Nothing's going to be allowed to slide.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time | Closing Time | Drug Industry History | Patents and IP

The Paper Mountain

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Posted by Derek

Another thing a large research site has, and in mighty impressive quantities, is paper. Something's got to be done with it, but not all laboratory paper is created equal.

Of course, a lot of the mass represents hard copies of files that exist in digital form. Non-proprietary stuff (journal articles that are no longer needed, etc.) will go into big recycling bins to be handled by guys who really have some long days ahead of them. A serious office move (and this is about as serious as it gets) is a good chance to toss ancient literature folders whose contents have become outdated. I just heaved out a pile of that stuff the other day, since I don't thing that 1991 reviews of Alzheimer's pathology are going to come back into fashion. I also had a bunch of miscellaneous hard copies of the Journal of Organic Chemistry from the early 1990s stuffed into a file cabinet - out they went. They were joined by old copies of C&E News, local phone books, 3-ring binder contents of short courses whose contents I don't expect to ever need, and a pile of chemical company and lab equipment catalogs.

Pages with proprietary data on them are a different matter. They're to be tossed in a special shredder box, to be picked up later by some other guys who are also going to earn their money. There are trailer-size portable shredder operations that you can hire for occasions like this. Compound lists, graphs of in vivo activity, photocopies of notebook procedures, handouts from project meetings - all that stuff is headed down this path. Different people save different amounts of this material. I save all the computer files, but heave most of the paper when a project finishes up, so I don't have as much in this category.

Things like printed NMR spectra used to be in a special category, because back in the days of expensive digital storage the hard copy was all you had. I guarded my NMR spectra pile fiercely in grad school, since I was going to need that data to get out of there. And in my first years in the industry, digital archiving was spotty. Now that gigabytes are carried around on key chains, all spectral data are automatically archived, so hard copies are just a convenience.

At the top of the paper mountain are lab notebooks. We switched over to an electronic notebook system a few years ago, but it didn't relieve us of the obligation of keeping a hard copy. Printouts are to be taped into the good ol' notebooks, and signed and witnesses just like the handwritten pages of yore. That's a legal requirement, and scientists at research sites across this great nation are regularly harangued about keeping up to date on it. It does little good. Researchers are just not wired to get things countersigned on a regular basis.

That can lead to some real problems for US patents in particular. We're still a "first to invent" country, while the rest of the world is mostly "first to file". And if you get in an argument about the date of an invention, well, lab notebooks are probably where you're going to end up. An invention that isn't signed and witnessed until a year or so later isn't going to help much in that situation. Admittedly, it's rare that things get to that point, but when they do it means that serious money is at stake.

So no one's throwing away any notebooks, that's for sure. And we're all getting them up to date, signed off on, etc. Companies keep track of every extant lab notebook - they're all numbered, and completed ones no longer in immediate use are kept under lock and key. Nothing's going to be allowed to slide.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time | Closing Time | Drug Industry History | Patents and IP

November 15, 2006

Vial Thirty-Three: Warp Drive

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Posted by Derek

As I mentioned the other day, I'm sprinting to finish some last experiments on my side project. These are all on the "vial thirty-three" system that I first described here and finally got to work reproducibly here. Looking back, I remember how surprised I was earlier in the year when I first saw this experiment work. Figuring it out has been like building an invisible ladder and then climbing up it, watching the rungs become solid under my feet.

Now, of course, I'm pulling out all the stops there are to pull. There are so many other experiments that I've been planning for and trying to do, but they won't get done, at least not here. I have to do everything I can with what I have on hand, because there's no time to make anything new. The publication that comes from this won't be as sweeping a story as I'd like for it to be, but it'll do.

But I'm accomplishing more in a few days than I have in months, because, sadly, there's no one competing for any of resources I need. Compounds from the repository? They're ready inside of an hour. More biological materials from the labs in the next building? They're giving me whatever I want, because all the projects that had first call have been stopped. The mass spectrometer downstairs, an essential piece of equipment for me and the largest single bottleneck I've faced? It's wide open as of tomorrow. I don't have to get in line any more; there is no line.

I went downstairs and loaded up one of the NMR machines with a day-long queue of proton and carbon spectra - in fact, they're still going and they'll be running all night. If I'd pulled that a month ago, someone probably would have gone out to the parking lot and slashed my tires. Now I'm the only person using the machine at all. No one cares. This brief, strange interval has been like having my own research institute, and I doubt if I'll ever see anything quite like it again. Everything's going perfectly, because everything's going away.

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November 14, 2006

Where Do All The Chemicals Go?

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Posted by Derek

When a bunch of chemistry projects suddenly stop in their tracks, you're faced with a real waste disposal problem. What do you do with all the blasted chemicals? First off, there are reactions going in people's fume hoods, some of which probably aren't going to be worked up. Into the red waste can they go. Then there are all the opened bottles of solvent, which aren't going to be shipped off anywhere like that. Unless there's a local university that's not very picky, those are going to end up hauled off for waste, too. (I wouldn't trust a solvent bottle that someone unknown to me has opened and left around, personally, especially if I have no way of tracking down its previous owner).

Solid commercial reagents are a bit different, since they're generally more stable and less likely to be contaminated (and often easier to spot if they've gone bad). Everything unopened - and every lab has plenty of unopened stuff in it, for one reason or another - will either be moved to the sites that are still running, or have several chances at donation or sale before being treated as waste. Opened commercial reagents will be subject to the same calculations, but on a steeper curve. Is the stuff still commercially available? Do the folks on the other end have enough of it already? If no, is anyone likely to want it? Is it worth shipping a long distance? Any "no" answers send the bottle to the "donate" pile, and that much closer to a waste pickup.

My guess is that very few of the commercial reagents will stay within the company. Compounds and intermediates that were made in-house, though, will get much more deferential treatment. These are almost certainly not commercially available, and have (be definition) been used to make something that was thought to have some value and to have some chance of being proprietary. Everything in this category will probably make the cut for being shipped, unless it's obviously turned to black tar on storage.

The mother lode of these compounds is, of course, the repository. Every drug company has one, full of racks and rows of vials and small bottles, every one of them containing something that someone thought was worth making and worth testing. Some of these have been dissolved in small quantities of DMSO, for liquid handling machines to dispense them, and these may or may not be worthwhile. But all the stock solids will be carefully packed and shipped off, no questions asked. They represent a huge investment in man-hours and money. Tossing them would be like a coal company setting its mines on fire.

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November 13, 2006

The Race Is On

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Posted by Derek

Friday afternoon was quite strange. There had been another meeting to explain to people what the timetable would be to close down the site, but I left during its question-and-answer period. . .to go and set up an experiment. A half an hour later, colleagues of mine from down the hall were coming back from the main auditorium, talking among themselves about job searching and severance, and staring at me in disbelief as they walked past my lab bench.

You see, if I'm going to get a good publication out of my idea, I'm going to need some more data. For one thing, I need to go back and run some of the things I've already done, but this time at least in triplicate, so I can plot the data with error bars. Before I was running in duplicate, trying to save some of the harder-to-obtain reagents for later experiments, but that's not going to be an issue now. Inside of a couple of weeks, there aren't going to be any more experiments to run, because we're going to be shutting down the labs.

In addition to the repeats, I'm going back to my main sequence and setting up some new experiments which will help support my conclusions in a paper. Friday afternoon's run was a large one in that category, and (needless to say) it had better work. I'm not going to get much time to troubleshoot. I had been working on a different series of compounds, but there's not going to be time to finish that area, so it has to be thrown over the side.

So there I was, using some pipets that were left over when the company laid off a hallway full of biologists two years ago. I have no idea who the equipment I'm using belonged to, but I knew everyone over there. And the vials I set up went into a plastic rack, which is still labeled with the name of a lab associate who was let go about a year ago when another hallway was cleared out. I'm using reagents from projects that have been told to stop, trying to generate data before the analytical lab has to shut down. No wonder people were looking at me as if I'd lost my mind - if I had the time, I'd stop and stare, too.

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