If you haven’t heard of the “In the Pipeline” blog and you follow the pharmaceutical industry, then check it out. 

Dr. Derek Lowe has his fingers on the pulse of what’s happening INSIDE the industry.

A veteran pharmaceutical scientist and long-time Internet blogger, Lowe was among the first to report details of GSK’s 20% job force reduction in RTP. For example, he was among the first with the number of cuts (900) and also information about the transfer of hundreds of GSK workers to another company. (That is Parexel, which has a big office in the Triangle.)

Fed information from friends and contacts within the industry, he has written several insightful blogs about what’s happening at the drug giant and across the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in R&D. And Lowe, who lives in Boston but has close ties to friends in the Triangle, tells WRAL TechWire that GSK’s cuts are a “severe blow” to RTP.

His career includes Schering-Plough from 1989-1997, Bayer from 1997-2007, and Vertex since 2007. “I know a lot of people at GSK – and I was just down there at the RTP site a few weeks ago helping give a company-wide seminar on the future of drug research, ironically),” he noted.

In an exclusive Q&A, Lowe talks about what’s happening at GSK and the industry.

  • From an industry/professional perspective what damage does the job action at GSK do to the reputation of the Triangle as a center for drug research and development? Will there be long-term impact?

I’d have to think that it’s a severe blow. GSK is really the big player there as far as pharma/biotech research, and losing them is going to hurt. The Triangle isn’t enough of a hub for that industry to keep going very easily after something like this – look at Seattle after Immunex got taken out, for example.

The entire biopharma industry has been shifting around in recent years, with longtime concentrations like the Philly-NYC corridor through New Jersey starting to empty out. The Boston/Cambridge area has grown hugely, the Bay area around SF has grown a bit, and San Diego is just holding on. Meanwhile, Chicago has disappeared from that map almost completely, except for Abbott/AbbVie. The more isolated biopharma sites (Lilly in Indianapolis, for example) are seen as increasingly vulnerable.

And this news will only make those fears more real.

  • Why are interested in the layoffs at GSK?

All of us in the industry are interested in the large-scale fortunes of it, naturally. And most of us know people at the other companies personally.

  • Where are you getting your information? You obviously have some very good sources.

I get a lot of messages from people inside the various companies – both personal friends and readers of the blog. A lot of people show up in the comments section of the blog as well, under various pseudonyms. My site, for one reason or another, has been turning into the gathering place for that sort of thing.

  • I would suspect that you are pleased in being prescient not only about the layoffs but where and how they would unfold.

Not as much as you’d think – the industry has probably shed 100,000 jobs or so over the last ten years, and it’s getting pretty old. Friends of mine are now calling me about the job situation up here in Boston, and I know that not all of them will find something.

  • What do the layoffs at GSK mean in your view to the future of drug development (a) at GSK and (b) the industry. After all, as you know, many big pharmas are pursuing other avenues for drug development than internall R&D

A lot of big companies have been doing cutbacks of this sort over the last five to ten years. Novartis is the only one I can think of that hasn’t really joined that party. And you’re right that companies are inlicensing more programs and compounds, but someone, naturally, has to do the research somewhere.

My take (and I’m not alone, by any means) is that the balance of the industry is shifting towards more smaller companies and fewer large ones.

People wonder every few years if one of the big companies is just going to stop internal discovery research altogether and just inlicense everything, but I feel certain that people have already run the numbers on this and decided that it can’t go that far (not enough candidates, increased cost of doing deals when everyone knows that it’s all you have, etc.)

  • What is the focus of your career now?

I’m in early-stage drug discovery (which is where I’ve been the whole time, in one capacity or another). Over the years, I’ve worked on most of the major disease areas, but I’ve never put anything onto the market (this isn’t unusual, unfortunately!) I’m a medicinal chemist, which means that I (and people like me) generate the new compounds and analogs for testing, and we try to optimize them for potency, selectivity, blood levels, and so on to get them ready to go into clinical trials.

  • Why were you involved in the seminar on future of drug research?

It’s the blog. I’ve been delivering opinions on that sort of thing for years now, so I get speaking invitations in that area. I was appearing with Bernard Munos, who was at Eli Lilly for many years and has written several interesting journal articles about the history (and costs) of new drug research. We seemed to go over well, but it was clear that people there were worried about the future of the site.

  • Is blogging just a hobby or are you interested in publishing/authoring more perhaps on a professional basis?

It’s a hobby – science is my real job. I realized back in 2002 (I have one of the oldest, perhaps the oldest, science blog on the internet) that I really wasn’t getting much use out of the speed with which I write and compose. It’s not a big part of the day job. I was reading some of the early blogs at the time, and thought “I could do that”. And I realized that every time I told people about what I do for a living, they seemed to find it interesting, so I thought that would be a niche.

That said, I do write two monthly columns for pay (one for a US trade magazine, Contract Pharma, and the other for the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, Chemistry World). So I do have some income from that sort of thing. But as I tell people, I’d probably be eating weeds out of the back yard if I tried to make it my profession.

(Check out Dr. Lowe’s blog online.)