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Ask an expert: Cancer researcher

cancer researcher drugsJames is a chemist working on the next generation of anti-cancer drugs for Cancer Research Technology, a company owned by the charity Cancer Research UK. He was our resident expert for a month, and school pupils had the chance to ask him some questions about his life and work.

What did you study at university which enabled you to get into such a career?

I studied for an undergraduate five-year Masters degree in medicinal and biological chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. It consisted of three years of foundation work then two more years with a greater emphasis on organic and medicinal chemistry. However you could get into a job like mine just as easily by studying a straight chemistry degree. One thing prospective employers (particularly for your first job) look for is a degree that includes a year in an industrial placement. This gives you a lot more practical experience and employers like to see this. I didn’t do this and found it quite difficult to find my first job, so I would strongly recommend it.

To what degree is maths involved in your day-to-day work?

It is a very small amount and quite easy. It is no more difficult than GCSE level maths. However during a chemistry degree there is a fair amount of maths and some of it is quite complicated. But don’t be put off by that, as most universities offer catch up courses for students without maths A-level.

When you were at university, did you find that you had to work harder than your friends who didn't study chemistry?

Chemistry is a difficult course and requires a lot of hard work. I had between 30 and 40 hours of scheduled study a week. This included lectures, laboratory work and tutorials. There would also be another five or so hours a week at home or in the library writing essays or answering tutorial problems. I had a lot of friends who studied other natural science degrees (such as maths, physics or biology) and they worked equally as hard.

Friends who took humanities or social science degrees had a lot less timetabled work to do but had to spend a lot more time in the library. However I would say that someone studying chemistry would have to work harder than someone who took one of the arts based subjects.

Being at university is not only about getting a degree but also about enjoying yourself and whatever you study you will have enough free time to do so! I certainly did even though I worked harder than most of my friends. The only part of the year when work became all consuming was around exam time when everybody had a lot of revision to do, but this is true of whatever course you study.

Many new cancer drugs have been in the news lately because they are too expensive for NHS doctors to prescribe. Will the drugs you make in your lab be cheaper for the NHS to use than commercially produced drugs?

A good question but as a practical chemist engaged in the research of new drugs my role gives me no say and little knowledge in the pricing of drugs, however I’ve tried to put together some sort of answer.

Getting a new drug from conception to clinic is a lengthy and expensive process, often taking over ten years and $1 billion to do so. Additionally due to the length of the development times the amount of time that a new drug remains under patent protection is relatively short. These factors can lead to the high prices of drugs as companies try to recover their costs. Another major factor in the price of a drug is the manufacturing cost. Some drugs that have been in the media due to high price are Vinorelbine and Docetaxel, these are extremely complex molecules and have a high production cost which is passed onto the consumer.

Another high profile case is that of Herceptin for the treatment of breast cancer. This costs up to £40,000 per patient and is only effective in less than a third of patients, consequently health authorities have to weigh up if a drug is cost effective or whether the money could be better spent elsewhere. Hours could be spent arguing the morality of the decisions made in these cases. The drugs made in our lab are simpler than the examples I have given so probably would be cheaper if they reach the market, but unfortunately drugs are products like anything else and drug companies want to make a profit. Even a charity has to work with a pharmaceutical company if they want to create treatments for cancer due to the cost and risk of clinical trials being too high to be shouldered alone.