March 2011

Teamwork: Industry and Academic Perspectives

Teamwork is essential to all scientific discovery from academia to industry

 
 Photo Credit: www.lumaxart.com
 

In team sports, no game is won by an individual. Michael Jordan, arguably the best player in basketball, could not have won six NBA championship titles without Scottie Pippen and other gifted teammates. In contrast, the public often perceives science as an endeavor pursued by lone individuals in isolated labs.

Most of us are familiar with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 upon noticing a contaminating mold that killed staphylococcal colonies in a culture dish. Few of us, however, know that Fleming’s first publication on this observation drew little attention and that after nearly 10 years of unsuccessfully attempting to identify the fungal antibacterial ingredient, Fleming almost abandoned this line of research. It was Howard Florey and Ernst Chain’s teamwork, starting in the late 1930s, that led to mass production and isolation of stable penicillin and successful testing in patients with bacterial infection (1). Fittingly, Fleming, Florey and Chain shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1945 “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.”

Teamwork in industry

Nowadays, team efforts are expected in drug development, which involves therapeutic concept validation, target identification, compound development, animal model testing and, ultimately, clinical trials. Specialists in different fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physiology, pharmacology, toxicology and medicine, are required to work together to bring a drug from lab bench to bedside. Such a process is not necessarily easy. As Garret FitzGerald of the University of Pennsylvania stated recently, “a crisis has emerged in drug development … One reason is that too many steps are pursued in specialist isolation” (2). Indeed, molecular biologists and chemists who start the drug development process may not have sufficient knowledge in physiology and human disease to follow it to completion. Conversely, doctors who conduct clinical trials may not be familiar with modern techniques that are essential for understanding molecular mechanisms and identifying drug targets.

To bridge this gap, the National Institutes of Health has proposed to establish the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to build closer ties between basic science and drug development. This timely initiative at the federal level will help to foster teamwork, accelerating the discovery of new therapies and cures for diseases (3). Within the pharmaceutical industry, similar efforts are being made with the assembly of teams of basic scientists and clinicians who are involved in every stage of drug development.

Teamwork in academia

The concept of teamwork is not limited to drug development – it also applies to academic research. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School are legendary for their life-long collaborative studies on lipid metabolism. Nancy Jenkins and Neal Copeland, two of the top 50 most cited biomedical scientists in the world today, are both life and lab partners who work with mouse models of human disease.

As science advances at an ever faster pace, expertise in different fields often is required to address more complex problems. When asked about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in addressing urgent scientific questions, Christian de Duve, who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Albert Claude and George E. Palade in 1974 for their discoveries of cell organelles, replied that “in biomedical research, multidisciplinary collaboration has become mandatory” (4). Investigators with diverse backgrounds often look at problems from entirely different angles and may apply different techniques to solve them. The advantage of collaborative approaches in research is well recognized. In fact, nowadays most scientific publications have authors from multiple departments and institutions, reflecting the reality that current research is done collectively and no longer individually.

Making it work

Teamwork in industry and teamwork in academia may differ in goals and organization charts. For example, a product that requires cooperation from multiple departments may be the ultimate goal in industry, while a publication that requires collaboration from several laboratories may be the final aim in academia. However, the requirements for successful teamwork in both sectors are quite similar. Every team member needs to understand the overall objective of the project, his or her responsibility, the timeline involved, potential problems and their solutions and alternative strategies.

In addition, clear and timely communication between team members is critical to ensuring the smooth transition of the project from one stage to another. The constant interactions between project managers, scientists and associates in industry as well as principal investigators, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in academia require professional respect, common language and knowledge of the subject and critical evaluation of experimental results. Identifying and solving problems encountered early on, and even taking approaches to prevent potential problems from occurring, are essential to overall efficiency and success.

Collaborations between companies and academic institutions are increasing, but they have a long way to go. Different regulations and practices may exist between the two sectors with regard to issues like confidentiality agreements, material transfers and associated documentation. It is not difficult, however, to foresee that fruitful collaborations can be crafted if both sides understand clearly the benefits of working as a team. Together, we can advance science and technology at a faster pace, making our world a better place for generations to come.

References

1. Fleming, A. (1964) Penicillin. Nobel Lectures, physiology or medicine 1942 – 1962. Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam.
2. FitzGerald, G. (2010) Drug development needs a new brand of scienceNature 468, 869.
3. Wadman, M. (2010) Francis Collins makes the case for an institute focused on translational researchNature 468, 877.
4. de Duve, C. (2010) The joy of discoveryNature 467, S5.

Qingyu Wu (wuq@ccf.org) is a professor of molecular cardiology, nephrology and hypertension at the Lerner Research Institute, Cleveland Clinic. Weiping Jiang (weiping.jiang@rndsystems.com) is a director at R&D Systems, Inc.

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