November 2009

Cecil Pickett: Advancing Drug Metabolism and Discovery

Nrf antioxidant signaling pathway
Proposed Nrf2-antioxidant response element signaling pathway. Newly synthesized Nrf2 translocates to the nucleus where, following transactivation of its genes, it is targeted for degredation by Keap1. J. Biol. Chem. (2005) 280, 32485-32492.

It was only when Pickett took his latest position at Biogen Idec in Cambridge, Mass., that he finally had to shut his research down; though, in truth, he was prepared to pretty much shut everything down before taking the job.

“I was actually ready to retire from Schering-Plough back in 2007,” Pickett says, “and take up a position on Biogen Idec Inc.’s board of directors. I had no intention of working in the R&D division, but I got to talking with the CEO, and one thing led to another. And, in the end, I agreed to work on a short-term basis to do some mentoring and help organize the research pipeline before retiring for good.”

No Rest for the Retired

After spending more than 30 years in the industry sector, Cecil Pickett has been witness to a tremendous amount of change. Some changes were good, such as the tremendous impact advances in molecular biology and molecular genetics — like cDNA cloning — have had. “These advances pretty much spearheaded the formation of the first biotech companies,” Pickett says.

Others were not so good, such as Merck’s recent Vioxx problems. And Pickett believes that the near future will remain difficult, given the struggling economy and the negative public perception that pharmaceutical companies often face.

Life in Industry

So, what is life like within the walls of a pharmaceutical research center? As Pickett noted, in many ways, academia and industry are similar in terms of running a lab and conducting research. One important difference in his view, though, is how industries divvy up their scientists. Instead of the departmental fields seen in universities, pharmaceutical researchers are grouped based on their specializations within the drug pipeline; whether it’s the discovery team that identifies potential drug targets, a process chemistry team that scales up drug production, a formulation team that formulates a drug for optimal delivery or the toxicology team that tests a drug’s effects in animals. “So, while the first stages of drug design can begin with just a handful of people, by the time it’s ready for the clinic, potentially more than 100 people have become involved.” Pickett believes that being willing to work in such a team-oriented structure is a key factor for industry success. (Although it’s also becoming more important in academia as well.) “If you think you can be independent and just concentrate within your own lab, your industry experience will not be rewarding."

“The pharmaceutical industry is somewhat constrained, because it only can be successful by continually discovering new and innovative products,” Pickett says, “and it’s true that some organizations have become so large that bureaucracy is stifling innovation. If pharma CEOs manage based on short-term earnings, they cannot succeed in an area that requires long timelines for success.”

However, he’s hopeful that pharmaceutical companies can remain relevant in today’s times.

“Large pharmaceutical companies, I think, might be well served to increase partnerships with smaller companies, where innovation is still strong,” he says. “And if they can do that, think long term and focus on recruiting and retaining bright individuals, there’s no reason they can’t continue to be one of our most premier companies. Every great drug discovery started simply — with a creative individual and a good idea.”

As for Pickett’s own rosy post-retirement future, don’t expect him to rest on his laurels. He currently holds an adjunct professorship at Rutgers University and will maintain an office there, spending time working with graduate students. This mentoring certainly won’t be a new experience, though. Throughout his career, Pickett has demonstrated a strong commitment to mentoring young scientists, particularly minority students and fellows, and using his resources to strive for diversity in the industry sector. As several of his colleagues would point out, his activities as a role model are even more impressive considering the corporate environment, which usually tasks superiors to ‘manage’ as opposed to ‘mentor.’

And, in an interesting twist, he’s even thinking of starting up his lab again, giving himself a taste of the academic life he forwent all those years ago. “It’s only been a couple of years since my last experiment,” he says. “I don’t think I’m too far out of the loop in terms of the science.”

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