Environmental Factor, April 2006, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Schering Plough Vice President Featured at Black History Month Presentation
By Blondell Peterson
Cecil Pickett, Senior Vice President of Schering Plough Corporation and President of Schering Plough Research Institute, was the guest speaker at the NIEHS Black History Month observance on Feb. 23 at the Rodbell auditorium. Schering Plough Research Institute is the pharmaceutical arm of Schering Plough. Pickett's topic was "Drug Discovery in the 21st Century.
Pickett is no stranger to NIEHS or NIH. He was a member of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council from 1994-1997. He also served on the advisory committee to the NIH Director from 2000-2004. Well known for contributions in the private corporate sector, Fortune Magazine named Pickett one of 50 most powerful Black executives in America in 2002. Black Enterprise recognized him as one of 75 most powerful Blacks in Corporate America In 2005. He was lauded for being a role model for all African Americans aspiring to a career in science.
Pickett talked about his research experiences in the last 29 years and how technology has changed within the industry. During a question and answer session he outlined some things that have been important to him in his own career progression.
Pickett said drug discovery was at a very different state when he joined the pharmaceutical industry in 1978. All assays used in vivo models using whole animals, and all chemicals were assayed one by one.
"Today, we are seeing a number of new technologies that, in my opinion, really are accelerating significantly the overall pace of drug discovery," Pickett said. He specifically cited the sequence of the human genome and also the sequence of model organisms that are used in the drug discovery process. "Based on that we really know almost every single molecular target that could be intervened with to create new antibiotics as well as in certain fungal species," he said. "That's an extremely powerful technology to have."
Pickett predicted that the impact of technology in the area of genomics probably won't happen for another 10 years because it takes as much as 10 years to capitalize on the initial observation stage. This is due to the long research and discovery process for each drug. However, he feels that the technology will have a major impact on the discovery of new classes of drugs.
Pickett said genomics has also been useful in predicting the structure and function of proteins. Scientists also use genomics to predict expression of genes or proteins in normal versus diseased tissue. This gives researchers an idea of what might be therapeutically relevant in terms of a molecular target.
Chemistry is another area Pickett said has changed dramatically within the industry with relation to the ability to create small molecules. With the advent of High Throughput Screening, scientists can make several thousands of chemicals at once rather than one. Compounds are no longer screened one by one. It's all done by microbiotics. Pickett said the chemical library is the most important intellectual property a company can have. The diversity and complexity of that library is tremendously valuable because that's where chemical leads come from that go on to become drugs.
"Over the last 10 years since 1994 we went from a collection of about 500,000 compounds to about 5 million," Pickett said. "In the past, it would have taken us about 30 years to build a library like that."
Drug metabolism has undergone a tremendous difference over the last 15 years. "We now know how our compounds are metabolized by humans, so we can predict or eliminate significant drug interactions before we introduce a compound into the clinic," Pickett said.
"I think the next 10 years will be the golden age of drug discovery," Pickett said. "Innovation in our industry has always been driven by advances in biology, and that's what will drive the creation of new products. We will see major advances in the treatment of some diseases such as various types cancer particularly solid tumors and some of the neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's."
Pickett's recipe for success is to focus on scientific excellence, within any company, to stay engaged in science and maintain a research laboratory. "It provides breadth, and you stay contemporary in science, and that allows you to judge scientific programs better outside of your particular interest on a scientific basis," he said. Equally important, according to Pickett, is the development of good oral and written communication skills.
"Set high goals and don't let people tell you what you can't do," he said. "I'm from the Midwest, so I believe you have to work hard, be honest and treat people with respect and dignity. I think if you do those types of things you are going to be successful."
After Pickett's presentation, the NIEHS Diversity Choir sang a medley of songs by two African American composers, Jester Hairston and Moses George Hogan. Terry Lewis led the audience in singing the Negro National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Kimberly Jackson's Dancer's Corner of Knightdale provided entertainment during a reception in the cafeteria. Five-year-old J'aniah Peterson, daughter of Kimberly Peterson an administrative specialist in the Laboratory of Signal Transduction, is a member of the dance group.