November 2009

Cecil Pickett: Advancing Drug Metabolism and Discovery

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This past Oct. 5, Cecil Pickett found himself celebrating a doubly special occasion. Not only did the date mark his 64th birthday, but it also marked his retirement from Biogen Idec Inc., where he served as president of research and development since 2006. The event brought to a close a sterling 32-year career in the pharmaceutical sector, which included stops at Merck & Co. Inc. and the Schering-Plough Corp. before his appointment at Biogen Idec.

Over that period of time, Pickett and his research teams have been responsible for important breakthroughs, like the development of widely used medicines, such as Zetia, Noxafil and Singulair, as well as the more basic studies elucidating the function and regulation of drug-metabolizing enzymes like glutathione-S-transferases. Together, these achievements show that pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical or biotech industry can provide the best of both worlds — being able to carry out projects that can impact human health directly while at the same time conducting valuable fundamental research.

“Overall, I felt that life as an industry researcher was really not much different than that of an academic one,” Pickett says. “You oversee a laboratory, hire postdocs and technicians, sit on committees and publish articles about your work. And, in the end, I think that the quality of basic research that comes out of industry is on par with that of major academic institutions.”

In Pickett’s case, at least, many will be quick to agree. “I’ve spent a long career in industry and been involved in the development of many drugs,” says American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology member Al Alberts, who helped bring Pickett into the Merck family many years ago. “But I think it’s safe to say Cecil was probably my biggest contribution during my time at Merck.”

A Hard Day’s Night

Looking back at Pickett’s extraordinary career, a phrase that’s often used to describe the modest scientist would be “strong work ethic” and that trait was present long before Pickett took on his first industry position at Merck & Co. in 1978. As one of nine children, Pickett, who grew up in the small Illinois town of Canton, began working almost as soon as he could walk to help support his family, including jobs delivering newspapers and mowing lawns.

In school, he became interested in math and science early on, particularly chemistry and biology, and decided to pursue that path in college. And after growing up in the rural Midwest, he was eager for some adventure and headed off to California, where he attended the University of California, Berkeley, and later transferred to nearby California State University, Hayward, which is now known as California State University, East Bay. He continued his hardworking ways and took on full-time jobs to support his education — first in a university chemistry lab and later at Cutter Laboratories.

Pickett notes that his long list of duties made his time in college difficult. “After I finished all of my classes for the day, I went straight to the lab to work on the second shift, or sometimes I even worked on the graveyard shift, so I really didn’t have time to enjoy my college experience,” he says. However, in 1971, all of the work paid off as Pickett received his bachelor’s degree, becoming the first member of his family to graduate college.

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