Randy Schekman — Industry Science

(Image from: https://www.cannondesign.com/our-work/work/novartis-institutes-for-biomedical-research-cambridge-campus/)

RS: Well I would say one of the dramatic changes has been in the career options for someone studying biomedical science, generally biology, life science. When I started in graduate school in 1970 there was only one career option really–as an academic that was my intention and all of my classmates expected to do the same. There were of course in other disciplines, in chemistry there were positions in industry, but that just wasn’t an option in cell and molecular biology. 

But then shortly after I started graduate school, certainly when I started at Berkeley, the biotech industry was born and that has grown enormously and continues to grow. And now there are enormous opportunities in biotech and startup companies and sort of mid-level companies, established companies. In fact I would say the majority of our PhD students and postdocs go into biotech and the options there are very attractive, not just financially but also rewarding in the sense of being able to contribute one’s knowledge and experience to something useful.

Some years ago there were calls by very prominent people to cut back on PhD training in biomedical science because of the lack of career options, and they were always just referring to the lack of academic career options, but I didn’t take that view because the biotech world is enormous. You know with this new pandemic, I think the opportunities are going to gain strength again. The opportunities for drug discovery to deal with infectious disease are there and I think the government is going to have to recognize that and contribute essential to that mission. Because biotech and pharma simply can’t afford to go after drugs for diseases that are going to die off. 

So I mean this SARS-COV-2 will eventually be treatable by vaccines or drugs and infection will go down. The drugs will not, unlikely oncology, the drugs will not be used on a regular basis, but there’s no doubt that there will be another incident of zoonotic transmission of another coronavirus or somethin else unless we work ahead of time to ward off those kinds of infections we will suffer once again with the trauma that we have now. And so that has been an enormous change.  

LC: Right, you touched upon two things that I think I want to follow up on a little further. I did see in an interview earlier where you mentioned the growing opportunities for scientists in biotech and pharma and that the prejudice against them is maybe a little unnecessary. My last two summers have been at Summer and Genentech so I have a little entry into this space. You’ve also been a really large advocate of open access science and research, and that’s something that these companies sometimes play a part in but often don’t because they are highly competitive in nature. The president of NIBR Jay Bradner, or the culture of NIBR was that you need to be the first or the best to market in order to have a viable product. And if you don’t you won’t invest the 2 billion or whatever dollars it takes to develop a drug. 

RS: That’s perfectly rational for a drug company. And yet scientists who are in drug companies still enjoy publishing their work, of course after patents have been issued and things like that. But you know a company like Genentech, very big very successful company, has a very strong emphasis on publishing the work that’s done at the company. Big pharma maybe less so, but the more insightful biotech companies do encourage that. 

What I would like to see is more industry-academia collaboration on those big challenges for drug discovery. And it’s happening, but I mean I’ll give you an example relevant to the current pandemic. 

The SARS epidemic broke out in Hong Kong 18 years ago and unlike SARS-COV-2, SARS 1 was not contagious without symptoms so it could be contained. And it died out. Then ten years later the MERS epidemic in the middle east, and that virus is very poorly transmitted. So that died out too. And so while there certainly has been an effort to understand these viruses from a basic point of view, the funding for that has been limited, interest has been limited because there’s no market for it. 

So since these two epidemics, SARS and MERS, subsided so quickly, there was no market for drugs. And yet people who were isolating coronaviruses from bats found thousands of different variants. And it didn’t take a leap of imagination to appreciate that this was going to happen. And who knows, the next one might have been easily contained as well but unfortunately not. So my view is we’ll likely have a vaccine that will work well enough by next  year, but the next coronavirus that emerges in ten years or whatever will be immunologically distinct and the vaccine won’t work. And that’s because the coat proteins mutate quite substantially but the core machinery encoded by the viral genome can’t mutate so dramatically to sustain replication and therefore those genes I think are targets for therapeutics. 

And I would compare it to HIV where there’s never been a vaccine and may never be. But boy the drugs that, and again that was a public-private commitment because AIDS is a 100 percent certain death, so that was a disaster, but it took a long time. But now it can be effectively controlled. And I think the same would have been true for coronavirus had there been a public-private commitment to continue drug discovery. But the drug companies have to have intellectual property. You know AZT which was the first drug to treat HIV was developed through HIV funding. But the principal of NIH funding, you do something in your laboratory through NIH funding that the government doesn’t claim any patent royalties. You have to share royalties with your institution, but this really has encouraged basic scientists to become more entrepreneurial and that has been a good thing I think. But for the big challenges, in infectious disease there’s no substitute for the two working together. And you know what the NIH has done in the past to try to encourage basic scientists to do drug discovery in their own laboratories–basic scientists aren’t equipped to do that generally. They don’t have the wherewithal, they don’t have the knowledge, they don’t have the experience. They can identify targets, they can get compounds that are partly effective, but the pharmaceutical industry really has to do the lion’s share of development. 

LC: Yeah I was stunned when I stepped into Novartis to witness the process of research. It’s not really project research, it’s more assembly line style. 

RS: Yeah, well I wouldn’t call it that. Well maybe at Novartis, but the biotech companies I’m familiar with it’s all about the team. Whereas in academic science it’s all about the individual. I mean each professor has a group but typically each member of a laboratory in an academic lab has his or her own project. Whereas in biotech companies it’s all about the team effort. And that’s something that I would say is unfortunately missing in academic science, and I would say it’s because the reward structure in academic science favors the individual. 

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