The Process Scientist: Brian Moran, Pfizer Grangecastle

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Brian Moran holds a doctorate from DCU and now works as a process scientist with Pfizer at Grangecastle in Dublin (Credit: Brian Moran)

Whether it’s for heart disease, or depression, the drugs that sustain our health only reach the pharmacist’s shelves after a hugely complex and highly regulated manufacturing process. The making of a drug can involve input from hundreds if not thousands of people, and right at the heart of it all, is the process scientist.

There is a sense that the process scientists – who are the glue that holds together the entire drug manufacturing process – are the unsung heroes of Ireland’s, still thriving, pharmaceutical industry. The key role of process scientists, working as a technical services team within the plant, is to field questions on any aspect of the process, large or small, from any manufacturing section or quarter, right across the site. They are expected to take these questions and to find answers.

The questions might have to do with the raw materials coming into the plant, or to do with the labeling on the drug as it is about to leave the site. Whatever the stage of the process, or the nature of the question, it will be sent to the process scientists at technical services to deal with. It’s an important, challenging role.

Dr Brian Moran, is a process scientist working within the technical services team at the massive Pfizer Grange Castle Biotech plant in Dublin. The €1.8 plant is located on a 90-acre site and is one of the largest biotech plants in the world. The site as a whole is involved in the manufacture of the ‘next generation’ of EMBREL, a drug used to treat osteoporosis and arthritis, and Prevnar 13, a vaccine used against pneumococcal bacteria given to newborn children. Brian works on EMBREL.

The pharmaceutical industry must have a ‘pipeline’ of products constantly coming through. Otherwise, if a drug like EMBREL came ‘off patent’ without a new version being in place, then the ‘generic’ drug manufacturers would make a cheaper version of EMBREL and sell it using its chemical, not its brand name.

In this scenario, Pfizer, the company that produced EMBREL, would lose out.

The real importance, however, of the job of the process engineer is to ensure the integrity of the production process, in order to make safe, and effective drugs – and that applies to every batch of drugs that leaves the plant, without exception. The secondary role is to save money, by providing efficiencies in the production process, and to maximize the return the company makes from its drug pipeline.

Inspiration

Brian, who is from Dungarvan, was inspired to pursue a career in science by his  chemistry teacher at St Augustine’s College, Oliver Broderick. “He was very much ‘old school’, but he knew how to connect with the students,” said Brian about his former teacher. “He knew how to make the subject enjoyable. You would get homework, but it was a pleasure to do the homework – almost. It was very much related to real life. He had a real passion for the subject, for the sciences. It certainly did rub off on the majority of the sudents,” recalled Brian.

Such was his influence, said Brian, that all of his siblings went into the general, scientific, medical or healthcare fields. “I have a brother and a sister that are both pharmacists and my little sister is an occupational therapist,” said Brian’. “The one abiding link there is that we all had the same chemistry teacher.”

After his Leaving Certificate in 2000, Brian went to DCU where he signed up for a four year course in Pure and Applied Chemistry (in his first year the course changed its name to Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science). In the summer following his 3rd year at DCU Brian got the opportunity to work in research in the US as part of a r collaboration between DCU and the University of Kansas.

This experience whetted his appetite for further research after his degree, and he moved on to do a PhD in DCU in medicinal chemistry.  The doctorate took three and a half years to complete; then it was on to a post-doc. At this point, however, he switched his chosen field to environmental and analytical chemistry. At the same time, he began questioning the logic of trying to secure an academic job.

“Academia is a very difficult area to break in to,” explained Brian. “To make a success of it you have to be young, free and single, to get the international experience, and build up your contacts. Then the opportunities are very limited. I had a young family and I was looking for something more secure. There was more job security and opportunity by getting into the pharma side of things.”

After two and a half years of post-doctoral work, Brian applied for, and secured a job working in technical services at the Elanco plant in Sligo (Elanco is the veterinary wing of Eli Lilly).  He had started to build a house in Dundalk, where is wife is from, and had a small daughter. His stayed in Sligo during the working week and came home to his family at the weekend. When a second child came along a few months ago, a boy, there was a strong motivation to get a job ‘back on the east coast’. The job at Pfizer is within commuting distance of Dundalk.

The great thing about working in the pharmaceutical sector, he says, is that it had – at least until a few job loss announcements recently – been largely untouched by the economic crash. Things are still going well in Irish pharma, but the emphasis, he said, is changing in the industry with a general move away from the manufacture of the bulk products – the tablets and chemicals – into synthesizing medicines using biotechnology. This is exactly what is being done at Grange Castle, he said, where products are being grown up using cell lines, and the whole process is more advanced than before.

“Currently I’m looking at all the starting raw materials coming in, making sure that they are all sufficiently pure, doing any testing that needs to be done to make sure that they are all fine, fit for purpose for the product. We are working side by side with the engineers who are looking at the ‘hardware’ side of it.”

The analogy he used was to think of the process at Grange Castle in terms of it being like building a PC.  Under this analogy the engineers are looking at the hardware – the computer monitor, the keyboard, the mouse etcetera– while the technical services department (populated by scientists like Brian) looks at what software needs to be put in, what kind of anti-virus programme and what filters.

Brian loves the interaction across the entire Grange Castle site that his job provides. He is also at ease with the responsibility that comes with the position. On the downside, there is a lot of paperwork. He has had to ‘hang up his white coat’ and spends a huge proportion of his work time in front of a PC writing up reports, writing assessments and signing off on things, rather than at the bench.

He would recommend his job to anyone considering a career in science. “In terms of technical services,” said Brian, “you can get in at the boom level and you can go right up to the very top of the whole manufacturing structure. There is always great scope for moving up the line, there are great opportunities.”

This article was first published in the January-February 2014 edition of Science Spin

When rocks start ‘talking’: The science of geo-chemical fingerprinting

Geochemistry can get rocks to ‘talk’ about how they were formed, and when (credit: http://www.crsbooks.net)

We have all heard of DNA fingerprinting, where the DNA in a person’s blood is identified, for example, at the scene of a crime, or on a victim, leading to a criminal prosecution.

But, what exactly is a geochemical fingerprint? Well, the same principle applies, but this time it concerns rocks. The geochemistry of a rock can provide information about how it formed, when, and what has happened to it since.

It can also be used for a variety of non-geological purposes, such as, for example, determining where a neo-lithic person lived from the examination of the carbon and oxygen isotopes in their teeth enamel.

This provides clues as to what they ate, and what water they drank.

LISTEN: Interview with Professor Balz Kamber

Broadcast on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 12-04-2012

DCU scientist comes up with a greener, cheaper way to make drugs

DCU researcher and ‘green chemist’ Dr Nick Gathergood, has developed a cheaper, greener way of producing new antibiotic drugs.

LISTEN: Interview with Dr Nick Gathergood

Broadcast on the weekly Science Spinning show on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 05-04-2012

READ: The article below was published in The Sunday Times, Irish Edition, on 08-04-201

A Gas Man: John Tyndall

John Tyndall of Leighlinbridge Co Carlow, pictured above, was the first to explain why the sky is blue and to discover ‘greenhouse gases’ in the Earth’s atmosphere (Credit: Wikipedia)

The first researcher to identify the ‘greenhouse effect’, to explain why the sky is blue, and to develop optically pure air – the foreruner of today’s cleanroom technology, which is used in the manufacture of high-tech electronic devices. These are just some of the many reasons why John Tyndall, from Leighlinbridge Co Carlow was certainly one of the most famous 19th century scientists in Britain and Ireland. A multi-talented man, he was also a brilliant science communicator, whose public lectures at the Royal Society in London were legendary, as were his many popular books on scientific topics. When he died in 1893 he died a rich and hugely successful man, leaving behind £22,000, the equivalent of £6 million today.  Not bad for a man born into a humble Protestant family in rural Ireland.

Tyndall’s ancestors were from Gloucestershire and had arrived in the southeast of Ireland in the 17th century. His background was certainly not a privileged one, and his father worked as a police constable. He attended local schools, where he learned subjects such as technical drawing and maths. He worked in Ireland for as a surveyor the Government doing land surveys and mapping, and moved to England in 1842, now in his early twenties and did the same. He benefitted from the railway building boom in the UK in the 1840s, and made a lot of money working for the railway companies, doing surveying work in that decade.

It seems, however, that although he was always adept at making money, money was not his God and he went into teaching in 1847 at an English boarding school in Hampshire. He moved to Germany a year later, to do a PhD under Robert Bunsen, of bunsen burner fame, at the University of Marburg.  He returned to England in 1851 and joined the Royal Society in London one year later. He would remain at the Royal Society all his working life, and became its Director.

Institute

The large and well-respected Tyndall National Institute in Cork was named in Tyndall’s honour. The reason the Institute named itself after him that is that he did a lot of research in areas that the Tyndall is interested in today such as the behaviour of light. Tyndall did some of the earliest investigations into the ‘guiding’ of light, and this is essentially what underlies optical fibre technology, which forms the basis for modern communications, particularly the Internet. He also did a lot of work on what would today be called ‘clean room’ technology. His work involved studying things that float in the air, and he developed some of the very earliest ‘optically pure’ air. Today, cleanrooms are used as manufacturing sites for producing advanced semi-conductors and opto-electronic devices.

Science communicator

Tyndall was a great believer in demonstrating things to students or the public in order to explain them. He gave lectures to the public on all kinds of topics, and he proved to be a brilliant natural science communicator and these lectures were very popular and attracted large crowds. This work also made him famous, and ultimately made him rich too.  He succeeded the famous Michael Faraday as  the Director of the Royal Institution and he continued the work of public outreach that Faraday had started. Tyndall was a brilliant 19th century ‘polymath’, meaning he was interested in lots of different things. He belived in getting the message over by actually demonstrating things to the general public. He was profilic, publishing many books, 17 in total, and wrote 145 scientific papers.

Personal life

He married late, at the age of 55, to a woman 25 years younger. They had no children. He left just over £22,000 pounds in his estate when he died in 1893. This was an enormous amount considering that a London police constable was paid about £80 per year at the time. If we do the comparative mathematics that means his estate was worth in the region of £6 million in today’s money.

He was someone who suffered considerable ill health. He slept badly, suffered from migranes and took ‘sleeping draughts’ to help him to sleep. These draughts were tonics used in the 19th century that people drank before bed to help them get to sleep. The draughts were administered to Tyndall by his wife, and

they proved to be Tyndall’s undoing as he died from an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate when his wife got some bottles mixed up. The woman was distraught, and no blame was attached to her at the subsequent inquest.

Aside from science, the other great passion in Tyndalls’ life was mountain climbing and each summer form 1856 onwards, he visited the Alps. He was the first to reach the top of the Weisshorn in 1861 and he climbed the Matterhorn in 1868, three years after the first ascent. He had caught the mountain climbing bug when visiting the Alps for scientific reasons. Today he has a glacier in Chile named after him as well as a mountain in California and another in Tasmania.

Legacy

There were a number of things Tyndall did which were ‘firsts’. He was the first to analyse the trace gases in the atmosphere by employing a technique that would later become infrared spectroscopy.  He used the technique to discover that there were traces of carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere. He concluded, showing brilliant insight, that they way that carbon dioxide and water vapour absorbed infrared radiation meant that they were keeping the Earth warm. He went further, and said without these two elements, life couldn’t exist on Earth.

He was the first scientist to attempt to describe precisely why the sky is blue. The simple version of his explanation is that it was all to do with the scattering of light. This was later replicated by Lord Raleigh, but Tyndall was the first to do it. He had many battles with creationists, who considered that life had arose spontaneously out of nothing. He showed that it was not possible for life to spring to life spontaneously through a simple experiment. He made a box very clean and took all the dirt out of the air, and waited. No life forms spontaneously arose.

Certainly, Tyndall is one of Ireland’s greatest ever scientists, and his influence over many areas, including science communication, remains strong to this day.

First published in the September-October 2011 edition of Science Spin

How Irish Scientists Changed the World, by Seán Duke, is due for publication by Londubh Books in 2012.