When your pharmacist hands you your prescription over the counter, have you ever wondered what goes into the medicines that you take? When you are prescribed 10 milligrams of a particular medicine say, in the form of a pill or a tablet, as a patient you could not physically handle such a small amount; you would barely be able to see it in fact, never mind be able to take it. Hence this amount of medicine has to be formulated with excipients - substances added to give density - and manufactured into a larger unit that a patient can take as course of treatment.
Dr Gino Martini is one of the people behind this process. He is manager of strategic technologies at GlaxoSmithKline, the second biggest industrial pharmaceutical company in the world, behind the American-based Pfizer. His work is in development: discovering new treatments for diseases and illnesses and putting them into formulations that a patient can take.
Another challenge facing Dr Martini and his team might be to create a tablet that, instead of having to be taken three times a day, only needs to be taken once a day, so as to reduce any adverse side-effects.
"There is a lot of pressure on us to make sure our medicines are different and superior to what's out there on the market at the moment," says Dr Martini. "Most of the innovations and advances in treating diseases have come from the UK. It's a competitive market, so we have to make sure our treatments are effective. We have a very proud tradition of delivering cutting-edge technology and treatments, and long may it reign."
For all our longer working hours and increased stress levels, people in the UK continue to live longer. In 2002, life expectancy for women was 76 - 81 for males - compared to 49 and 45 years respectively back in 1901. By 2020 these figures are expected to rise by another three years.
While life expectancy has many contributing factors, these figures speak volumes about medical advances. While such achievements should be lauded, they also put more pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to continue to develop new medicines. This need is intensified by the plight of developing countries which require help from the West in the face of diseases such as Aids and malaria, and by large-scale natural disasters such as the recent events in New Orleans, that require huge amounts of medication quickly.
The pharmaceutical industry is one of the primary manufacturing sectors in Britain, in which trade surplus (the monetary surplus of exports over imports) amounted to £3.4bn in 2004. Our share of the pharmaceutical market is more than all of our European competitors combined, and second only to the US. The industry is also a big employer, with around 83,000 employed directly in this country, and others in feeder industries.
There are three main career options within the pharmacy profession: hospital, community and industry. Hospital pharmacists deal with the day-to-day dispensing of medicines in hospital wards and outpatient clinics, and work closely with doctors on patient care. A community pharmacist provides expert advice on a range of medicines and minor ailments as well as supplying medicines. Their job is to ensure that patients are given exactly what they have been prescribed, and they have additional business and customer relations issues to deal with. They are also expected to practise clinical intervention, and refer patients to a GP if they deem it necessary.
Industrial pharmacists research and develop the medicines that end up in the hospitals and the pharmacies. Research and development is a key element of the pharmaceutical industry with 30 per cent of sales spent on it each year; roughly £10m per day.
To become a pharmacist you need a degree in pharmacy, approved by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. Minimum entry requirements are three A-levels, which should include chemistry and one other science (biology is preferred), and two GCSEs, including English and maths. The Master of pharmacy degree lasts four years, full-time. Following the completion of the degree, graduates spend a year in practical training before sitting the pre-registration exam to become registered as a pharmacist. Dr Martini completed a degree in pharmacy at the University of Manchester and then went into community pharmacy, where he worked for a year.
"That was really good for me because I got to see how people take medicines and I had to deal with people's problems," he says of the experience. "I got a good understanding of where medicines end up, and how doctors prescribe them."
Dr Martini returned to Manchester a year later to do a PhD, which he completed after four years, before heading back into the workplace as an industrial pharmacist. He is keen to stress that such a shift between different sectors of the pharmacy industry is a viable option: "Just because you've started in hospital or community, it doesn't mean you're stuck with that. There are people I know who have trained in hospital and community and have switched over to an industrial environment, or vice versa. The degree gives you that flexibility, as long as you keep up to speed with current practice."
Such is the flexibility of the degree that there are a number of options open to graduates. "Because our degree is so diverse - and it's a tough course as well - it actually opens up a lot of avenues for people," says Dr Martini. "I've chosen development because it's something I find interesting, but you could work in manufacturing, public affairs, regulatory affairs or scientific licensing. There's so much diversity - it's a really good qualification that gives you a passport to a wide variety of disciplines and careers within the sector."
And Dr Martini has a particular incentive to continue his good work: "Many people in my family suffer from diabetes, so I'd like to see improvements in that area. I get a buzz out of seeing some of the ideas I develop on the bench or in my head making it onto the marketplace and adding value to people's lives."
'I look after a team of eight sales representatives who sell pharmaceuticals to the NHS'
Mark Bryan, a pharmacist who became a regional business manager for Lilly UK, the British affiliate of the American group, Eli Lilly
I studied pharmacy at the University of Bath and then a postgraduate diploma in clinical pharmacy. There are a large number of jobs you can do with a pharmacy degree in the industry and they're not exclusively for pharmacists.
I look after a team of eight sales representatives who sell pharmaceuticals to the NHS. I spend my days coaching, developing and leading people in terms of how they are doing their jobs and how they can do them better. I've been here for 10 years. I worked for the NHS for about five years, before moving into industry, and I've had six different jobs in that time. I have a lot of fun - I wouldn't have been here for 10 years if I didn't!
I would recommend speaking to someone who works in the industry. I think a lot of pharmacy graduates would be surprised by what they can do within the pharmaceutical industry. When I was at university I thought it was just R&D, but there are a number of jobs that pharmacists can do because of the knowledge and transferable skills they gain.