If you’re here reading about drug discovery for fun, you’re probably a drug hunter. You might be someone on your way to a leadership role in pharma or biotech. Maybe you’re decades into your career and already leading an R&D division.
You don’t have a PhD in drug hunting, and it’s unlikely to be in your job description. But something makes you different from others you work with. Most likely, you found Drug Hunter because medicine is more than just your profession. You’re here because you love what you do.
What Does a Drug Hunter Actually Do?
A drug hunter is someone that wants to bring new medicines to society. Drug hunters are the visionary product leaders of biopharma: they know what a drug has to accomplish to be valuable to society, and they make the plans to get it there.
To make their vision for a new drug happen, drug hunters pull and push everyone needed around them. Drug hunters feel personal ownership of drug discovery programs and a sense of responsibility for helping projects advance. Drug discovery teams thrive with effective drug hunters as project champions.
Drug hunters bring the why to the project team. Why should we make this molecule? Why is this study important? Why is this drug going to make an impact on society?
They also focus on the how. How do we find the molecules we are looking for? How will we know if this drug actually works? How will we get this drug to society?
These questions transcend any individual function that’s typically encountered in drug discovery and usually require a team to find answers. Without the drug hunter’s emphasis on the why & how, projects become paralyzed or lose direction.
Why Are Drug Hunters Important?
Ideally, everyone in our industry would think like a drug hunter, but with healthy company culture, it only takes one great drug hunter to make a major difference even to inexperienced teams.
How? Effective drug hunters are experts of the industry in general. They can quickly point their teams to historical case studies where certain screening strategies were effective, or quickly identify the key roadblocks sure to appear on a project many years out (Biomarkers! Patient selection! Endpoints!). They help ask key questions so teams don’t work on things that don’t work. Their long-distance view can help a team focus on the major issues or deprioritize projects they know will be out of their control.
For certain infectious diseases, a drug hunter may realize that the ultimate barrier to commercialization is reimbursement policy. In that case, they know the team needs to focus on proof-of-concept for a sub-indication that society is willing to support treating. For diseases that require large, long, and expensive clinical trials (like Alzheimer’s), a drug hunter may direct the team to use biomarkers or a rare subset of patients to get to a proof-of-concept study sooner.
To make the magic happen, drug hunters have to be excellent teammates and communicators. They find a way to share the product vision in their head with the team that’s needed to make it happen. Drug discovery is a team sport, and like lead athletes on any field, the drug hunter inspires, collaborates, and listens.
In small biotech institutions, drug hunters often need to network externally to enrich their teams with missing specialist expertise. In large organizations which have no shortage of resources, effective drug hunters need to develop network internally to get alignment and buy-in for action. Drug discovery is done by people, and great drug hunters are often great people motivators.
Who Are Drug Hunters?
For a long time, most drug hunters were chemists with organic or medicinal chemistry training like Wendy Young, whose graduate work contributed to the discovery of Alimta® and who was part of Danishefsky’s paclitaxel synthesis team as a postdoc. When small molecule drug discovery dominated, chemists were the ones who saw most of the action from synthesis to development, and naturally tended to be program leaders. As drug modalities, discovery approaches, and development strategies have rapidly evolved, the canonical profile of a drug hunter is, too.
A drug hunter can be a chemist with a pharmacy background (think Vertex’s Sabine Hadida, whose team discovered ivacaftor, lumacaftor, and tezacaftor). Drug hunters can be physicians like Charles Sawyers, who championed enzalutamide and apalutamide. Investors can be drug hunters, too, like Beth Seidenberg, who has incubated more than 20 biotech companies.
Your background could be in structural biology, chemistry, enzymology, project management, or even business development – it doesn’t matter. If you’re trying to bring new medicines to society, you can call yourself a drug hunter.
Not all medicinal chemists are drug hunters, and not all drug hunters are medicinal chemists. A chemist can be someone who cares about making cool-looking molecules, no matter what they’re used for. Valuable, but not a drug hunter. Some medicinal chemists are only interested in making molecules that bind very tightly to proteins for the sake of science. Also valuable, but also not a drug hunter. A drug hunter cares about all of this but stands out in their determination to connect the science of molecules with the real need of patients for new treatments.
Examples of Drug Hunters Who Love What They Do
Rob Kania once talked about the discovery of axitinib, which had just been approved for the treatment of cancer. He showed a picture of how tiny his children were when he had started working on axitinib early in his career. Afterwards, he shared a photo of them when the drug finally came out, and they were well into high school.
Given how long and fraught with challenges the drug discovery process is, it takes a special kind of motivation to stay engaged and committed. Our main goal has nothing to do with popularity or a giant check. Most drug hunters are driven by a combination of factors – love of science and technology, desire to be helpful to others with our work, surrounding ourselves with brilliant and passionate people, and the pure fun of solving difficult puzzles.
Drug hunters can occasionally become very wealthy from being involved with a successful drug. This happened to my undergraduate mentor, Rick Silverman. But even after a big check, his continued drug hunting wasn’t motivated by big money. He still taught his classes at Northwestern, brought a packed lunch, and made time to answer questions from nagging kids. A significant amount of the money was donated back into doing basic scientific research, too.
The German chemist Klaus Grohe, who invented ciprofloxacin, is another great example. With his earnings, he created a foundation that awards scientists who have made important contributions to the field of medicinal chemistry.
While the vast majority of drug hunters don’t see such financial success, you can see among the numerous retirees who continue to volunteer for professional societies and stay engaged how much they love the art.
Why Drug Hunter, and Not Designer, or Engineer?
Problems usually fall into two broad classes: they’re either precedented or not. Precedented problems are the kind that unlimited financial resources could produce a solution for in a given time. These usually follow a recipe, blueprint, existing patent, or other past precedent. It’s been done before, and we know that with enough resources we can do it again.
Drug hunters work on problems that are unprecedented. Nobody knows whether it’s possible to make a drug that effectively treats Alzheimer’s, because it’s never been done before. It isn’t even clear that we’ll ever be able to make a highly effective drug for it even if we had all the world’s resources working on it today. Since problems like this have no foreseen solutions, they can’t be addressed by “designers,” “architects,” “engineers,” or any other term that implies a person possessing clear foresight.
“Hunter” better reflects the copious time spent wandering in drug discovery, seeking unprecedented solutions that haven’t been found and may not even exist.
A drug can have a rough phase three even after an amazing phase two. It can make it past marketing, and then blow up after rare adverse events. Decades afterwards, lawsuits can suddenly appear. Drug discovery is a complicated task that’s forever incomplete. Drug hunters are pretty confident that we’ll never reach a point where pharma executives won’t need a really good lawyer.
With so many chutes and very few ladders, most of us will spend far more time as drug hunters than drug inventors. Even they won’t know whether their drug has actually been successful until all the cards have been turned. We’re in it for the love of the game, not the shiny prize.
Why Drug Hunter Was Created
If you’re here because you love drug discovery and you think our industry is amazing, you’re not alone. I started Drug Hunter because I was tired of reading only negative news about our industry. Why wasn’t there more online about all the awesome science and impact taking place?
The pace of innovation in the industry is so awesome, in fact, that it’s gotten harder to keep up with everything. Drug Hunter exists not just to celebrate drug hunters and the art of drug discovery, but is here to help make your life easier. We’re here to save you time, keep you updated, and help you discover ideas for your team’s next blockbuster.
I hope this is helpful and hope you feel as proud to work in the industry as I have.