The pharmaceutical industry has taken centre stage over the past two years. The best scientific brains developed a vaccine for Covid-19 in record time, helping to bring the pandemic under control - in some parts of the world, at least.
So should students consider a pharmacy course and, if so, where might it lead?
We spoke to three people working in the pharmacy sector. Professor John Golmer is a pharmaceutical chemist lecturing in Trinity College, and is involved in drug development and research projects. Liza O'Brien is director of human resources at pharma firm Ipsen Ireland. Muireann O'Hora is a technical specialist at Ipsen.
How did you come to work in this sector?
Muireann O'Hora: From a young age, I was interested in science. It was my favourite subject in school, and for my Leaving Certificate I did biology and chemistry. I started a general science course at NUI Galway in 2015 and, in 2018, graduated with a bachelor of science in microbiology. During my undergraduate degree I completed a module related to using microbial cells to produce pharmaceutical products - and ultimately helping patients. This sparked my interest in the biopharmaceutical industry and, with this in mind, I continued my studies and completed a masters degree in bioprocess engineering in 2019.
John Gilmer: I trained as a chemist and did my PhD in chemistry, then joined a pharmaceutical spinout in Trinity, UniMed plc. I joined the school of pharmacy as a lecturer in 1998 and continued to be involved in drug development and research projects.
Why might somebody consider a career in pharma?
Liza O'Brien: Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the perception of pharma in the public mindset. A recent national survey conducted by Ipsen found that 89 per cent of 18-24 year olds have greater respect for the work and innovation of the pharma sector since the start of the pandemic. We have witnessed what science, research and collaboration can achieve in such a short period of time, as several vaccines have been rapidly developed, tested and approved over the last 18 months. This has contributed towards saving millions of lives across the world.
Muireann OH: I have always wanted a meaningful career where I had the opportunity to improve people's lives. It's a career where I have an opportunity to impact many peoples' lives through supporting the manufacture and release of life-changing products, research and drug development. I was really interested in applying the research and studies that I had completed throughout my college years in a hands-on environment. Helping to provide medicines and solutions for some of the world's rarest diseases is really rewarding, as is being a part of the future of healthcare and striving to help the greater good.
What can a student expect to learn on a pharma course?
John G: Communication is a strong element of pharmacy training, as pharmacists have to communicate with various stakeholders including patients and healthcare professionals. Courses involve group work, and students acquire problem-solving and analytical skills. We ask students to engage with industrial issues that are brought to us, such as where a product fails a stability study. Graduates learn about the professional and regulatory environment, patient safety issues and elements of social science.
What are the entry routes to the pharmacy courses in Trinity, RCSI and UCC? There are pharmacy-related courses available in technological universities and institutes of technology, as well as pharmacy apprenticeships (see Apprenticeship.ie)
John G: Any good science or engineering qualification will provide someone with employment opportunities in technical roles in the pharma industry in product development, regulatory, manufacturing and distribution.
What graduates does the sector take on?
Liza O'B: The industry hires from all disciplines and backgrounds, particularly science and engineering, but also business disciplines such as HR, finance, procurement and supply chain. It is a common misconception that we hire only those who have degrees and PhDs. We also hire based on experience and most importantly - potential. The pharma sector has also been very active in the apprenticeship space in more recent years.
Muireann O'H: What stands out for me in terms of skills requirements, as a recent graduate having joined Ipsen, include: good organisation, communication, teamwork (everyone working together to achieve the same goal of helping patients), collaboration, technical skills, problem solving and an analytical eye.
What type of jobs and career opportunities are available?
Liza O'B: When people think about pharmaceuticals, they often think of people in white lab coats with microscopes. Our recent Ipsen research actually found that 48 per cent of those aged 18-24 don't really understand what types of jobs and career opportunities are available in the pharmaceutical space. Of course, we do have scientists, but we also have a broad range of skill sets such as supply chain experts, finance roles, HR business partners, quality and compliance associates and just about every other role you could think of. All these roles help to ensure that novel medicines are developed, validated and supplied to patients.
John G: [Besides working as a pharmacist in pharmacies], in European law, the role of "qualified person" involves responsibility for ensuring a medicine is manufactured in accordance with the regulatory approval or manufacturing license.
PANEL: Big pharma, big problem?
The pharmaceutical industry has long had an image problem. That image problem - and the distrust of “big pharma” - is directly connected to the low take-up of vaccines in some parts of the world.
While the industry does produce life-saving medicines and has transformed and lengthened human lives, its model of maximising shareholder profits has led to scandals.
In 2012, science writer and academic Dr Ben Goldacre wrote about how the industry had suppressed the results of drug trials and engaged in highly questionable behaviour.
It is not perfect, but there are signs that the pharma industry - one of the most tightly regulated in the world - is changing although, online, some wild, unfounded conspiracies proliferate.
Research conducted by Ipsen* shows that, since the pandemic, 71 per cent of people have greater respect for the sector, with 15 per cent considering a move into the health or pharma sectors.
“Covid has changed the perception of pharma in the public mindset,” says O’Brien. “We have witnessed what science, research and collaboration can achieve in such a short period of time, as several vaccines have been rapidly developed, tested and approved over the last 18 months. This has contributed towards saving millions of lives across the world. Ultimately, the research and development undertaken by the industry is a key lever of social good, and for us at Ipsen our investment in discovering and developing new therapies to help patients with unmet needs and rare diseases is really the shared motivator for our team of 165 in Ireland.”
Academic scientists have had opportunities to communicate the scientific message during this pandemic, says Gilmer. “Goldacre does highlight some abuses in the industry, but it is largely led by people who have dedicated careers to beneficial discoveries and developments - that is why they enter the business: to make people’s lives better. There is a prestige associated with new medicine discovery and it is commercially beneficial to discover new medicines.”
O’Brien advises people to be selective and discerning about their sources of information online, particularly when it comes to health.
"Opt for credible, data-based sources, such as HSE.ie and content that is trusted or developed by healthcare professionals also," she says. "It can be easy to get distracted when there are so many theories and personal opinions shared on our social media feeds, but I always take a step back and remind myself to ask, 'where is the evidence' - and where is the real science to support it?"
Gilmer says: “Yes, there are commercial considerations - companies that have withdrawn from therapeutic areas where it is hard to make money, but the State can come in here to incentivise research in neglected areas and modify commercial behaviour. Overall, the industry is ethically motivated and highly regulated.”
*Survey carried out by polling firm i-Reach among a nationally representative of 1,000 consumers.