Lowe Down

The Lowe Down: Med. Chem. Migration?

By Derek Lowe | January 26, 2007

How will low-wage regions affect domestic chemistry services?

I'm hearing more and more comments from my fellow medicinal chemists about the rise in Chinese and Indian chemistry services. The tone of these remarks correlates strongly with the underlying personalities of the people making them, naturally, so they range from let's-see-what-happens neutrality to near panic. In that last group are the people who can't see why most med. chem. won't be packing up for Shenzhen and Bangalore any minute now.

I'm not in that camp myself, but the business does bear thinking about. Anyone who's spent any time in research labs here in the U.S. knows that there's an awful lot of Chinese and Indian lab talent out there, and that historically a lot of it has left home and never come back. What we're seeing now are (for the first time, in some cases) some real reasons for these people to return, or (if they're younger) to never leave in the first place. The question is, are there good enough reasons for research to leave North America and Europe?

The first one, and it's a good one, is money. Costs are lower in these other countries, largely because wages are lower. If a company really can get similar quality work for half (or less) of what it's spending now, that's impossible to ignore. There's always the question of what value to assign to "similar" in that last sentence, but no one can doubt that there are enough good Indian and Chinese scientists to eventually make these ventures work. It may take a few years for the local labs to get all the way up to international standards, but it's going to happen. They've already progressed from the get-your-cheap-intermediates stage of a few years ago to the point that the major companies are starting to open satellite discovery labs.

So, some research is going to migrate, and I don't see any way to stop it. Nor, actually, do I see any reason to. Developing a research-driven economy is the sign of a country becoming more wealthy, for one thing, and I honestly don't see the downside of having other countries develop. Countries (and people) should specialize in the things that they do best. As an economist would tell you, such development means that other countries then have more money to buy the expensive items that we're producing over here.

This also means that as research jobs fill up there, the costs of doing such work in China or India will start to go up (economics again!). Eventually, these countries won't be the low-wage havens they appear to be now -- some informal talk I've heard suggests that this is already happening. As it goes on, other countries will rise up to fill the low-cost role. Wait around long enough, and (if we're all fortunate) the Indian drug industry will be worrying about outsourcing to Pakistan and the Chinese chemists will be grumbling about Vietnamese competition. The example of the auto industry comes quickly to mind, with Detroit being overtaken by Japan, who then cast worried looks over their shoulder at the Koreans.

Of course, foreign car companies have brought a lot of work back to North America, but that won't necessarily happen in the drug industry. After all, it's a lot less expensive to ship pharmaceutical intermediates and products than it is to ship steel frames and finished trucks. No, drug discovery is a lot easier to move around. That means that while it's never a good time to be mediocre at what you do for a living, it's an especially bad time to be a run-of-the-mill drug discoverer. So if you're a medicinal chemist in New Jersey or a molecular biologist in San Diego, you're going to have to give your current (and potential future) employers some reasons to stay where they are and to keep paying you.

As a North American researcher myself (although not a mediocre one, I hope!), I've been trying to think about what those reasons should be. The ability to crank out methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile analoging isn't going to cut it, that's for sure. The only thing a chemist here can offer in that line is immediacy. I have to say, the offer of turning routine work around faster doesn't sound very compelling, even when it's in the same time zone. No, I think that nonroutine stuff is what'll be needed to keep the industry here in the long run, and by that I mean new ideas and approaches that haven't had time to move around the world yet.

Those are the traditional domain of small startup companies, and those have been a particular strength of the U.S. industry. To its credit, the country probably has a greater number of people willing to bankroll odd ideas than you could find anywhere else in the world. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that that's the future of drug research in the high-wage countries. If you're just going to hire people to screen targets from the literature (or rip off someone else's patents), develop some standard assays, and brute-force your way through an analoging program, well, you might as well do that with the cheapest work force that can get the job done for you. That's the lowest common denominator of industrial drug discovery, and it's increasing going to be performed for the lowest wages.

But it's going to take the low-wage countries quite a bit longer to catch up to the venture capital system that's in the place in the U.S. Risky as it is, drug discovery has still been turning into an industrial process for some time now. But so has the generation and funding of ideas themselves, and that's a much harder business to get into. The comparative absence of a startup culture in Japan, to pick one example, is worth considering. There appear to be cultural barriers in some cases to adopting what is, at heart, a sort of codified craziness. At least two steps have to take place -- someone has to stand up and say, "You know, I think you other people are doing this all wrong," and someone else has to take out their checkbook and agree with them. There are a lot of ways that both of these can break down, and in many places around the world it's never even gotten started.

And all that brings up another factor, which has to be kept in mind: scientific research isn't really a zero-sum game. There are more outstanding problems and unmet medical needs than there are people to work on them, largely because (for the time being) there's a shortage of good approaches to them. Having research leave won't be much of a problem if more springs up to replace it. In that case, the chemists and biologists of Shanghai or Hyderabad aren't, in the long run, going to be taking away projects from Basel or Boston. They're going to be working on different ones, because there's plenty of work out there for everyone, if we can find the ways to do it.

Derek B. Lowe has been employed since 1989 in pharmaceutical drug discovery in several therapeutic areas. His weblog, In the Pipeline, is located at www.corante.com/pipeline and is
an invaluable aid to Contract Pharma. He can be reached at derek-lowe@sbcglobal.net.
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