While completing my chemical engineering degree, I imagined my ideal job would be in the oil and gas or chemicals industries. However, economic downturn upon my graduation in 2008 led to hiring freezes across these industries. Luckily, I found my footing in the pharmaceuticals industry, which has allowed me to impact the lives of patients in direct and meaningful ways. While I was forced to pivot to a new path, the keys to my success as a chemical engineer in the industry include having a growth mindset, collaborating across disciplines, and driving innovation.
Having a growth mindset
One of the best aspects of my role is that I am constantly learning new things and have opportunities to gain new skills. When new data emerges that refute an existing assumption or mindset, I am forced to rethink my strategy and approach, and when I’m tasked with a new project, I’ve been able to also build new skills.
In 2014, I led the process development team for one of the highly complex small-molecule active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for a hepatitis C treatment. Mavyret was launched in 2017 with more than $11 billion in total sales to date, and treatment with Mavyret has cured more than 96% of patients across all major genotypes in just 8–12 weeks. Due to unmet medical need and exceedingly superior clinical trial outcomes, the project was accelerated to bring the drug to patients in a very short timeframe. This was my first endeavor in leading a large cross-disciplinary team of more than 20 members. This experience exposed me to a broad swath of the pharmaceutical business and helped me to build both my interpersonal and negotiation skills.
Collaborating across disciplines
The pharmaceutical process development pipeline is notoriously complex. The average time to bring a new drug to market is ten years. Last year alone, the industry spent more than $60 billion on research and development (R&D). Lengthy clinical trials and stringent regulatory approval processes are largely responsible for the high costs and long lead times. To help to overcome these challenges, the industry needs to ground operating models and company culture in collaboration, and chemical engineers are equipped to play a key part.
Development of efficient and robust manufacturing processes requires cross-functional expertise. It is critical to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration among chemical engineers, as well as synthetic organic chemists, analytical chemists, materials scientists, and pharmacists. Effective collaboration and innovation in drug development and manufacturing will help drive down R&D costs and shorten time-to-market for new products. For example, designing robust reaction processes for small-molecule APIs requires input from synthetic chemists, who have expertise in reaction mechanisms and impurity identification, as well as from chemical engineers, who can provide input on reaction kinetics, mass transfer, and scale-up considerations. Both chemists and chemical engineers are essential to the development of innovative solutions for translating complex synthetic reactions into viable products.
With the need for collaboration in mind, AbbVie has established a center for excellence (CoE) for chemical reaction engineering to address the need for quicker reaction process development. The CoE allows employees to work across organizational boundaries, helping to develop a collaborative culture and leverage diverse talent.
Chemical engineers have led innovations across pharmaceutical process development, including the adoption of predictive modeling, continuous manufacturing, automation and controls, and data collection and analysis.
Generating and capturing high-quality data is central to pharmaceutical science. High-throughput and custom automation tools allow our team to increase data generation. These tools also ensure consistent product quality and can enable the handling of highly reactive compounds without human involvement. Automating complex workflows helps our team to quickly gather necessary data, accelerating the rollout of new therapies to patients.
Chemical engineers also have expertise in continuous processing, which can be used for processes that are challenging to scale up as batch processes. Continuous processing enables the use of smaller reactors and improves the efficiency of heat and mass transfer, which helps to make hazardous reactions safer and improves selectivity. Continuous operations are suitable for mixing sensitive materials, as well as handling exothermic and cryogenic reactions, enabling challenging chemical transformations. Switching from batch to continuous can improve product quality and yield, decrease environmental impacts, and optimize process scale-up. At AbbVie, I led the design of a new lab and clinical manufacturing facility for continuous process development and manufacturing. These facilities will be ready in 2022 and will play a significant role in meeting patient medical needs, providing them with better quality treatments more quickly.
Chemical engineers are equipped with the skills and expertise necessary to contribute to the pharmaceuticals industry. Intellectual curiosity and an insatiable appetite for learning can help even new engineers gain valuable skills and expertise in this growing field.
This article originally appeared in the Career Connection column in the November 2021 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at www.aiche.org/cep.