Can you imagine a world without medicines? Given the way we take for granted cures today, probably not. But it's only been in the past 50 years that the modern medicines, such as those we rely on today, were discovered and developed.
In 1940, Alexander Fleming led the way into modern medicine when he discovered a type of mould that killed some bacteria. This led to the development of penicillin - the world's first antibiotic. In the years since, the pharmaceutical industry, which discovers and develops new medicines, has become one of the world's biggest and most dynamic industries - taking in the diverse skills and efforts of many people in what is perhaps one of the most important endeavours facing mankind: the battle against disease. A career in this field offers the opportunity to help save and transform lives.
Advances in medical knowledge and scientific technology mean that people all over the world are living longer and healthier lives. It is partly due to the pharmaceutical industry that many of the world's most devastating diseases have been wiped out or become easily treatable. Patients with conditions that once would have meant a death sentence now have a chance of treatment. Nowhere is this clearer than with cancer. Before the late Seventies, a cancer patient could expect a certain and quick death. But thanks to a range of medicines developed over recent decades, from chemotherapy to recent biotechnology medicines, cancer is now survived by many and the chances improve every year.
So where could you play a role in developing a new medicine? Every day, in pharmaceutical laboratories across the UK, there are scientists working at improving understanding of diseases and how they might be cured or their symptoms tackled. In the UK alone, nearly £9m per day is spent researching and developing new and improved treatments for a wide range of diseases including cancer, arthritis, heart disease and mental illness. Never has this work been more cutting edge. New understanding of human genetics and emerging sciences such as stem cell technology offer up a whole new world of science that has barely been explored. This is a major motivation for people working in this field. Roddy, a Bioinformatics scientist who studied Biomedical Science at University College, Cork, is a case in point. He says: "This is an exciting area of science. There's a real sense that what we're doing is pioneering stuff."
To begin developing a medicine, a company would establish whether there is a need for it, what condition needs to be treated, and how many people it affects. Then it is important to find out if there are already treatments available. And, if there are, can something be made that is more effective and/or has fewer side effects?
Once the need for a new medicine has been established, the disease must be studied to consider ways in which it could be treated. Compounds, designed by computer, are synthesised and screened to see which are the most active. Then the potential medicine has to be tested to see if it actually works, and vitally, to make sure it is safe for humans to take. The new medicine will then be formulated into a tablet, capsule, aerosol or injection. And finally, the developer needs to make sure that the medicine made in small quantities in the laboratory can also be reliably mass produced so that large number of patients can get treated. All these areas involve a large number of people in different disciplines, including chemists, pharmacologists, toxicologists, doctors, clinical trial experts, engineers, and many others.
Discovering and making medicines is a team effort - and the discoveries made in laboratories would never make it to patients without the skills of many people. In Britain, the pharmaceuticals industry currently employs around 65,000 people directly, with another 250,000 in related industries.
The great thing about working in pharmaceuticals is the scope of careers to choose from and not just for those with an interest in science. Skilled personnel including chemists, biologists, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, software developers, sales and marketing experts and IT specialists all work together to make a difference to millions of lives.
The sales and marketing team then provide an invaluable information service to health professionals. Modern marketing of medicines demands scientific knowledge, commercial acumen and a creative approach - and is an essential part of disseminating the benefits of a new medicine. The varied and fast-paced working environment is one of the key draws for pharmaceutical company employees. Kathy, a pharmacologist who studied at King's College, London agrees: "In the last three and a half years I've been involved with six or seven different projects and variety is definitely one of the plus points to my job."
Given the complexity and high-tech science involved in making medicines it is no surprise that a large proportion of employees are university graduates, often at PhD level. But there are opportunities for excellent careers at all levels within the industry; for example, there are science and engineering jobs within manufacturing where apprenticeships are offered to school leavers or those with relevant vocational qualifications. Matthew, an instrument technician who has an HNC in general engineering said: " I've always loved working with state-of-the-art technical and computer equipment, and this is the perfect industry for that."
Pharmaceutical companies are consistently rated as one of the best places to work with good careers and pleasant working environments including very good salaries, career development and training. To find out more about specific areas of the industry and possible career paths you could take, have a look at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's career website ( www.abpi-careers.org.uk).
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