Big pharma is worried. Despite throwing more money than ever at research and development (R&D)--global R&D spending increased by 75% in the 10 years prior to 2001 *--companies are finding that those blockbuster drugs that provide return on the investment seem to be harder and harder to come by. Just 31 new molecular entities were launched in 2001, compared with 52 in 1991. * That's partly because legislative hurdles are making it harder to bring new drugs to market, but finding them in the first place is getting tougher, too. The drug-discovery pipeline's output has slowed to a trickle.
But in one of the shiny glass and chrome buildings of the University of Helsinki's new Viikki campus, there's a group of scientists who are hoping to find ways of getting promising drug candidates into the clinic more swiftly--and more cheaply. Their in vitro experiment--which they call the Drug Discovery Technology Center  (DDTC)--involves mixing researchers from backgrounds as varied as chemistry, molecular biology, engineering, and technology and then watching the reaction.
Back in 1998, this center was just the spark of an idea. The draft of the human genome sequence was nearing completion, propelling a huge gearing up in the field of proteomics, but all this "is nothing without drugs," says Risto Kostiainen, head of DDTC. Meanwhile, he adds, "we had here in the Department of Pharmacy a lot of different technologies and skills," but they were all very isolated, which made no sense, considering Kostiainen's description of drug discovery: "the original multidisciplinary area."
Reorganising at the start of 2000 into a seven-programme project (see DDTC's Research Programmes, below) that brings each stage of the drug-discovery process--from molecular modelling to formulation and drug delivery--under one roof within the Department of Pharmacy has given research there a huge boost, says Raimo Tuominen, who leads the Biological Evaluation Programme. "We're now in a different world than we were in 4, or even 3, years ago," he claims. That's not surprising, according to organic chemist and junior group leader Jari Yli-Kauhaluoma, who points out that "the most fruitful results will emerge when people [from different backgrounds] talk and interact."
That interaction is extremely appealing to Ingo Bichlmaier, who is doing his Ph.D. research in Yli-Kauhaluoma's design and synthesis group. "It's something I never saw or experienced" in his native Germany, he notes. "There, departments are very separated," and people from different groups don't know one another, whereas by contrast, "it's easy here to ask" for advice or to use facilities in other labs. He really enjoys the opportunities for "looking over the borders of your own subject."
Training young researchers like Bichlmaier was another motivation for setting up DDTC. "There is continuously a shortage of high-level researchers in this area," says Kostiainen, and several people from the center have already been snapped up by industry. The first Ph.D. students to have carried out their research entirely under the DDTC umbrella will graduate later this year, but several master's theses have already been completed. In addition, DDTC organises a number of short courses each year in cooperation with Finland's Graduate School in Pharmaceutical Research, and it plans to hold more in collaboration with other graduate schools, says Pia Vuorela, who heads DDTC's bioactivity screening group. A recent "Introduction to High-Throughput Screening Technology" attracted not just 30 Ph.D. students but also an additional 20 attendees from industry.
What industry needs, and what DDTC aims to deliver, is researchers who, while being specialists in one area, "understand the whole system," says Kostiainen. A training in drug-discovery technology is "training for anything," he suggests, because it gives one the opportunity to "utilise one's knowledge in very different fields," from synthesis to analysis. Even the "regulatory agencies are interested" in people with such a background, says Vuorela.
Kostiainen's experience is that this is a field with considerable appeal for young scientists, and not just because of the employment opportunities. For the entrepreneurially minded, drug-discovery technology is a "good platform for innovations" and an area that can produce patents (see Drug Discovery Entrepreneurs, below). Yli-Kauhaluoma suggests that this is partly because it's an area with "lots of space to work ... room to make your mark." Developing a new technique can have a huge impact on science, confirms Vuorela, citing the development of electrospray mass spectrometry in the late 1980s, without which "the whole of biotechnology wouldn't be at the stage it is today."