Q 1) If you had to explain your fields of molecular drug targets, proteomics, bioinformatics and drug design to a 4th grade science class, what would you say?
“We are talking about the discipline that combines biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology and several other areas of science. It is the science behind the understanding of disease mechanisms. Scientists in this area work to identify potential targets for developing new drugs and explore uses of molecules as potential new therapeutic targets to fight disease.
To get into a little more detail, scientists working with molecular drug targets are interested in understanding the biochemical events at a molecular level. These are the individuals who are interested in developing new drugs by developing treatments aimed at new novel drug targets.
Bioinformatics resides at the interface between biology-- information sciences, statistics, mathematics and the whole area of the modern genome--all that DNA information that we now have. Since DNA specifies the sequence of amino acid in proteins, understanding DNA sequences is very important information for helping people in the proteomics field.
The area of proteomics is relatively new and really has a lot of different meanings, so it is important when you talk about proteomics to put it into the context during the conversation. By in large, it relates to people who are interested in developing, characterizing, identifying and assigning structure and function to new proteins. There are a large number of proteins in living systems and we don’t yet know what many of them do. By identifying, characterizing and assigning functionality to them, we can explore their potential roles as new drug targets. With every new discovery, a massive amount of new data is generated. The discipline of bioinformatics has grown out of the need to organize and simplify the new biological data and information, so that scientists can actually make use of all the new discoveries and build upon them.”
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Q 2) What is the overall goal of your field (i.e., in 10 years, we hope to have achieved XX)?
“The ultimate goal is to treat disease and help people by identifying new therapeutics for treating diseases, particularly genetic diseases that haven’t been very approachable by drugs yet. Another important goal here is to develop macromolecular therapeutics. Most conventional drugs are small molecular substances that are foreign to the body. One of the goals is to develop new macromolecular therapeutics, large proteins, and DNA-based molecules that more or less mimic what they do in vivo.”
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Q 3) What are some of the landmark achievements in molecular drug targets, proteomics, bioinformatics and drug design to this date?
“There have been numerous landmark achievements in drug design, especially during the past ten or fifteen years with the development of new and improved therapeutic drugs for classes of compounds that did not exist previously. Also, the development of new therapeutics that have less toxicity and more specific benefits for people has been a major advancement. In this whole area of biotechnology we now have, the most significant thing is the use of recombinant DNA technology to actually synthesize new macromolecular drug entities. A little more than twenty years ago this was not possible. The only way to get those protein drugs was to isolate them from living systems. Because of recombinant DNA technology we can make macromolecular therapeutics such as insulin, growth hormone, monoclonal antibodies, and other proteins in highly purified form which makes them amenable to the general population. When you have to isolate things from tissue sources, the quantities are usually quite scarce, so you can’t always make it widely available to everyone.”
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Q 4) What does the typical day of a molecular drug targets, proteomics, bioinformatics and drug design scientist look like? Please take me through one of your simplified, usual days at work.
“It really depends on whether the scientist works in an academic setting or an industrial setting. Though they tend to differ in the nature of their work, they both require working with laboratory colleagues, attending meetings, or looking over data for the people who report to them. In addition, it’s important to spend time at the library to stay current on the latest developments, or reviewing patent information.
A scientist in an industrial setting may have to attend meetings with a variety of people who differ vastly in terms of their backgrounds. Training and expertise are necessary in order to take concepts for potential new drugs and turn them into viable new drug entities. An industrial setting means lots of meetings, talking with people, planning, and looking over data and writing reports. Often scientists will meet with external groups, such as the FDA.
In the university setting, the nature of the interactions is often a bit different. In academia, the focus is often more on drug discovery or basic research. So what they are doing is in-depth research in a very specific area. In addition, there is a development side where individuals work on a new drug or a potential new therapeutic approach and try to turn it into a commercially viable product. For a new drug, we have to be able to manufacture, formulate, package, and evaluate it, which is lot different than doing discovery phase research. People in academic study often will work in partnership with scientists in the industry setting, since much of the clinical testing is done in a university setting.”
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Q 5) What part of your job do you like best? What’s the most challenging?
“Personally, I enjoy the intellectual challenges of solving problems, making new discoveries and getting results I didn’t expect. In addition, I enjoy collaborating with other scientists to discover and develop new therapeutics that can benefit society. The most challenging aspect is balancing all the things I have to do, while being able to have the adequate time to do all it all. Especially in an industrial setting where there are a lot of interactions and so many aspects to the business. I find juggling all those aspects is the most challenging.”
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Q 6) What achievement at work are you most proud of?
“Working in this area of biotechnology makes me proud--we now have numerous examples of macromolecular drugs that are available for patients in treating disease that didn’t exist twenty years ago.”
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Q 7) What type of educational background does your field require?
“That is a tough question because it is a personal thing. We need people at all different levels including B.S., M.S., Ph.D., and Pharm.D. Developing drugs and doing drug discovery involves a lot of people with different backgrounds, so it really depends on what the person enjoys and is seeking in terms of a career. I wouldn’t focus so much on what degree is required, but more on what one finds fulfilling. The higher you go in terms of education, the more administrative your focus tends to become, which often removes you from the hands-on aspect of the field. Same goes for an administrative or leadership role. If you enjoy the hands-on, for example, or doing experiments, the B.S. is a very good thing to have.”
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Q 8) How would you direct someone into your line of work (i.e., what should they study, what internships should they seek, what is the entry level position called, any tips to help get their foot in the door)?
“If a person is finishing their bachelor’s degree, they need to seek opportunities for lab training and additional scientific depth. Most often people don’t get in depth laboratory training, unless they have some notion that they want to go into science. Internships are a nice thing, however the reality is that they typically are limited in numbers and not everyone gets access to them. I would encourage undergraduates to pick up a lot of journals and go to their university libraries and thumb through them. They can pick up an issue of Science, which is a great place to look for jobs and opportunities. The back of the magazine often has job listings and opportunities, which are quite helpful.
I also encourage them to look at websites, like the AAPS website, to get a sense of the kind of work people are doing in drug development and if this is something that appeals to them.”
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Q 9) Is there anything you wish you would have known about your field prior to choosing it as your career?
“Well that is an interesting question. Personally, I started my career about 30 years ago, before a lot of these major scientific events had occurred. People who are successful tend to prepare for careers that don’t exist. There are things in science that are going happen that will shape the way we do our work in the future. In order for young people to be most successful and to prepare themselves, it is necessary to have a good scientific training, good balance, and have adequate depth. Then they are prepared and they can adapt to any kind of changes that can occur based on scientific discovery. I would also encourage them to try and develop good communication skills, including speaking and writing. This has become very important in science. In my own case DNA technology did not exist before I graduated college so consequently it would be kind of hard to prepare for that. Having taken a biochemistry course, I was prepared to pick that up. Again, your education doesn’t stop when you graduate. It is a life long pursuit.”
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