The AstraZeneca medicinal chemistry workshop gives PhD students an insider's view of careers in the pharmaceutical industry, discovers Yfke Hager

The AstraZeneca medicinal chemistry workshop gives PhD students an insider’s view of careers in the pharmaceutical industry, discovers Yfke Hager



This October, 20 final-year PhD students from across the UK and EU will find out what it is really like to work as a medicinal chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. During a challenging three-day residential workshop at one of AstraZeneca’s research and development centres of excellence, successful applicants will experience at first hand what a career in the pharmaceutical industry has to offer.

Now in its 26th year, the AstraZeneca medicinal chemistry workshop aims to lift the veil on the mysteries of the drug discovery process. ’It is one of the longest-standing initiatives of its kind,’ says Christopher Luckhurst, senior research scientist at AstraZeneca. ’The course is an intensive, adrenaline-fuelled insight into the life of a medicinal chemist,’ he adds. ’The workshop condenses several years of drug discovery into three days.’

When this workshop was conceived over two decades ago at ICI, the aim was to provide up-and-coming research scientists with a glimpse into the day job of a medicinal chemist. The formula proved so successful that it continues to attract talented young scientists. ’It’s a prestigious event, with a three- or four-to-one applicant to delegate ratio,’ says Luckhurst. ’Initial applications are assessed on key academic credentials. We aim to gauge each applicant’s enthusiasm for their subject based on a summary of their research and their CV.’ 

Delegates are split into syndicate groups and participate in a series of team-based activities that are designed to demonstrate the importance of chemists to the drug discovery process. Each group is headed by a medicinal or physical organic chemist from AstraZeneca, who ensures that the delegates get the most out of each exercise. This year the workshop will be held at Alderley Park, Macclesfield, UK. ’The programme will be run at a conferencing facility on-site and at the chemistry department so that delegates can experience the characteristics of the environment our chemists work in,’ says Luckhurst.



Following an introduction showcasing successful drugs to illustrate the diversity of chemistry involved in drug discovery, senior AstraZeneca directors are on hand to offer a perspective on the business challenges that lie ahead for drug discovery and the pharmaceutical industry. ’One of the continuing challenges we face is the attrition of candidate drugs in development; why is the industry not getting more drugs to the market? For example, we need to improve our understanding of toxicology and improve our predictive models,’ Luckhurst explains. ’It is up to the chemist to ensure that therapeutic leads and drug candidates have the right physicochemical properties in order to increase the probability of market success.’ 

In their syndicate groups, delegates are first tasked with the identification of potential therapeutic leads from analysis of a high-throughput screen output. Further activities include resource allocation and an organic synthesis exercise. In the latter, the teams are given a choice of two drug compound structures to disconnect and suggest reagents for the forward syntheses. On the last day of the workshop, the groups face their most energetic challenge: making use of concepts they have encountered through supporting presentations and previous exercises to deliver a candidate drug from a lead-like compound starting point. ’We aim to make the workshop as realistic as possible,’ says Luckhurst. ’We base some of the exercises on real AstraZeneca project case studies.’

Delegates can find out about career prospects at AstraZeneca during the workshop and during informal discussions with medicinal and physical organic chemistry staff, as well as process chemists, during dinner. ’While delegates do not receive preferential treatment if they choose to apply for a job at AstraZeneca following attendance at the workshop, some delegates who demonstrate a real passion for science may be identified,’ Luckhurst says. Of course, the company also gets something in return for its investment. ’The workshop is one of the mechanisms whereby AstraZeneca supports UK science, but it can also help the company identify potential future AstraZeneca scientists.’

The course is intensive but a lot of fun, says Luckhurst. His enthusiasm is shared by the delegates who have participated in the course. ’Feedback is generally very positive, and in response to delegates’ views, the workshop has evolved into the present programme of events’, he says. ’There’s no exercise quite like this one, offering such a hands-on experience. It really is a genuine insight into what the job is like.’

Yfke Hager is a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK 

Further details on how to apply for the 2010 AstraZeneca medicinal chemistry workshop will be advertised across UK and EU universities in due course

Further Reading

For more information on the medicinal chemistry workshop, contact Chris Luckhurst