The second of four posts on alternative careers, based on presentations at the Source Event 2008
A simplistic view of lab-based careers might split the options into academic research or work in the industrial sector. Either route, but particularly the latter, can encompass a broad spectrum of roles and goals. Working in industry need not mean that you’re part of a big pharma company like Glaxo or Pfizer, as Elizabeth Allen explained at this year’s Source Event .
Allen designs Phase I clinical trials for a living. She works for Quintiles. a contract research organisation ( CRO ) that partners with pharma companies to speed up the drug development process. In Allen’s estimate, the typical drug costs £900 million through the development stages, which can take 10–12 years. With increasing costs and more stringent regulations, chunks of the development pipeline are increasingly handled by contractors. This is where CROs come in.
A CRO is an independent organisation that steps into the development process once a pharma company has identified a promising new molecule. Examples of CROs include Quintiles. Covance. Icon and HMR. Typically, a CRO will organise and conduct clinical trials to test the new molecule in humans. As independent companies, they offer an objective assessment of a new drug in the clinical setting and, because they partner with many companies, typically offer broader experience than if the pharma company organised the trials themselves.
Allen bigged up the UK as a leader of clinical research, stating that around a quarter of the world’s top 100 medicines were developed in this country. Allen’s company, Quintiles, has worked on 50% of the UK’s top 10 drugs.
Allen described her role as highly rewarding, playing a key part in improving the lives of thousands of people. “I can live with that,” she says, “I can sleep at night knowing I’ve made a difference”.
She admitted that the role might be stressful for some, and certainly requires a high degree of responsibility. “We are dealing with people’s lives, so we have to be very careful. When I’m designing a trial I have a simple rule. If I’m not completely sure about something, I don’t do it.”
To get a job at a CRO. you should have a first degree or higher, or have relevant experience (for example, several years in a clinical setting). Naturally, you should read everything you can get your hands on about clinical research and regulation. A starting tip, from Allen, is to look up what GCP. GLP and GMP are, and learn all you can about them”.
Entry level clinical research associates might expect a salary in the high £20K to low 30K range, and this can soon increase to 50K with experience and extra responsibilities. And if designing a clinical trial sounds a little scary after the safety of the academic lab bench, plenty of on-the-job training will be offered to ease the transition. You’ll also gain plenty of project management and business skills that are highly transferable to other organisations.