Aesica Pharmaceutical’s director of technology development talks to Chemistry World about commercialising research

Barrie Rhodes

Barrie Rhodes is the director of technology development at Aesica Pharmaceuticals in the UK. Under his guidance, Aesica has successfully introduced new technologies to the organisation such as hot-melt extrusion with the University of Bradford and amide-bond formation technology with the University of Nottingham.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

I think like most chemists there’s a point in your life when you realise that chemistry is quite interesting and at secondary school I had a teacher whose enthusiasm was addictive – I really enjoyed his lessons.

Almost everyone I talk to says it was a teacher that inspired them in the first place.

Good teachers realise the power they have. I’m actually working with the Head of Chemistry at a local high school here in Cramlington and I think he realises that he can influence his students quite a lot. I think teachers are very important for science and for moving science forward in the UK.

Can you give us a bit more detail about the activities that you’re running in the school?

Well it’s relatively new. We’re working with an old colleague of mine who was an industrialist and has moved on to become a teacher. He’s been teaching for a number of years now and he gets frustrated by the lack of research and research relevant teaching that takes place in the environment he works in. He finds the students that are coming through understand theoretically what the chemistry is but they don’t really have a concept of how it relates to the real world, for example in industry. So we’re working together and I bring real life examples about industry, how it works, some of the equipment we use and the problems we face.

How did you come to work for Aesica?

I did a chemistry PhD in the US at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I’m obviously from the UK but found it quite difficult to get interviews in UK industry because they didn’t want to pay for me to travel to attend an interview. I was fortunate that I found an academic at the University of Newcastle who was happy to offer me a position based on a phone interview. So I did a short postdoc at Newcastle and then a position came up at what was then called Rhodia-Chirex , they’re now Shasun Pharma Solutions, and I started my life in industry as a development chemist there.

After a few years I moved onto Aesica as a production team leader. One of the good things about Aesica is that it has undergone rapid expansion since it was formed –  it’s increased both headcount and revenue 10-fold in the past nine years and as a consequence there have been a lot of opportunities so I’ve had a range of jobs in Aesica since I’ve joined – procurement, project management, strategic planning, lab management and my most recent role as director of technological development. Aesica has been great from that perspective and has given me opportunities to experience much of the pharma industry. Throughout all of these positions I’ve had a chance to use my chemistry degree. Procurement is a good example of this as when buying chemicals you need to make sure you’re buying the right things and to the correct quality standards. It can also help being able to advise research chemists which molecules are commercially available, and positively influence from where a synthetic project begins.

So you don’t miss being in the lab?

I don’t think I’d be very good in the lab anymore but to be away from a computer screen for a few days a week does appeal to me so I would like to be back to an extent but I think I’ve missed that calling now.

Can you give me a brief outline of what Aesica does?

When Aesica began it consisted of a single site manufacturing active pharmaceutical ingredients. More recently we have acquired sites that allow us to offer the formulation and packaging side of the business.  So, for example, we make tablets and other more complex formulations, and we package them and ship them across the globe. Ultimately we can both manufacture and develop active pharmaceutical ingredients and formulated products and we do everything from clinical phase trials all the way through to commercial manufacture.

How would you say the pharmaceutical industry has changed throughout the course of your career?

I think the biggest change has been the shift of pharmaceutical manufacturing from West to East, but the industry has responded to this and it is not all one-way traffic now.  I think a lot of people saw the changes coming in that the model that had been established for many decades in big pharma and drug discovery had started to break and this was when I first joined the industry back in 2001. I guess in decades gone past, big pharma companies, the likes of what are now GSK and Pfizer, had a large influence in the market. They were great at developing new products, they were great at launching them and recouping their R&D costs, but the big issue in the last five or 10 years has been that that model doesn’t work anymore and organisations like Aesica have been able to capitalise on that because we now do the bits that big pharmaceutical, and some other companies don’t want to do.

We also carry out work that other organisations don’t want to do or are unable to do – organisations that don’t have manufacturing facilities can use a company like Aesica to manufacture and help develop their drugs for them. So we’ve been able to take advantage of the way the model’s beginning to evolve. A good business will do that, they’ll see what’s happening in the marketplace and take advantage, and I think Aesica’s done that.

So in September the first technical paper that has been published as a direct consequence of the activities carried out within the Aesica Innovation Board was published in the journal Tetrahedron. How did this come about?

We did. As part of Aesica’s growth we’ve developed a proactive strategy for technological advancement within the organisation. About two years ago the Aesica Innovation Board was formed with the aim to develop new technologies and do things better than our peers, so we established a system focussed on innovation. Given the growth of the organisation and the investment required to do innovation properly we decided to focus on open innovation – we knew that we would be more likely to locate and identify more ideas  outside of the organisation, so the approach was to try and locate these people and organisations and develop ways to partner with them to innovate.

The paper we’ve just published1 in Tetrahedron is a direct consequence of that and it’s actually one of the first partnerships we’ve formed with the University of Nottingham, here in the UK. The idea was that we could go to academia and seek out what we called ‘dormant intellectual property’ where perhaps an academic has done some work but it’s not part of their core research activities and maybe they’re not quite sure what to do with it. We’ll take a look at that intellectual property and decide if it could be relevant to the pharmaceutical industry, to our current or future products. So we went to see Simon Woodward at the University of Nottingham and he pulled out some work he’d done on DABAL-Me3 a few years prior to this where he found he could make amide bonds pretty efficiently. This wasn’t long after the innovation board had been formed and we had done a lot of research into the background of what the pharmaceutical industry would be looking for and a clear pull at the moment is towards green chemistry and sustainability.

The ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable have put a really good paper together on the kind of things they think the pharmaceutical industry should be focussing on and one of those areas is amide bond formation. Amide bond formation has traditionally been a non-green or poorly sustainable technology – they can require very complex catalysts, non-green solvents and it’s not very atom efficient at all – they can be one of the least atom efficient bond formations you can do – so we saw a clear synergy with Simon and a potential market for that new technology – especially for challenging amides, where even the current best and greenest approaches fail. The open innovation approach is all about sharing risk and sharing reward and we basically gave Simon a steer in terms of what industry is looking for and he went away won grants that allowed him to do more work on this, including an EPSRC backed postdoctoral research position that will commence in early 2014. We supplied the influence for where it would be industrially relevant and that’s effectively where the paper came from.

You’ll see in the paper there are a few mimics of active pharmaceutical ingredients that we’ve tried to model and do the work on and we’ve also done it on some specific APIs as well. I think that without our joint input, that work would have never taken place. Together we’ve been able to take a focussed approach and deliver something that is now ready to launch to market. As a technology, Aesica now markets it and if any of our customers come to us with a molecule that contains an amide bond then we can assess the suitability of the DABAL-Me3 technology. It’s a good example of how open innovation can work effectively.

Do you think more academic institutions should be linking up with people like Aesica to commercialise their work?

That’s a very good question and I think it depends on the academic institution itself. Every time I speak to academics the word that comes up every time is impact. So from that perspective – chemistry departments that are looking for true impact – that kind of collaboration can work very well. And sometimes it doesn’t have to be a formal collaboration; it can be as simple as a phone call to the right person in the company who can guide an academic to something that is more industrially relevant. But I also think there are some academic institutions that are not best set-up for those kinds of arrangements – for example places that have a lot of grants in place already. We’ve found that some institutions are more open to open innovation than others. Obviously we’re big fans of open innovation so the more people that understand it and are open to it the better from our perspective.

Do you wait for people to contact you or do you go out looking for people to partner with?

We do both. When we began, not many people had heard about the Aesica Innovation Board and what Aesica is trying to achieve so you’re exactly right, we used to go out to academia and knock on their doors to try and find out more about them and vice versa. But through our marketing approach we’ve put a lot out in the market place about the type of things we’re looking for so there’s our own website but also open innovation forums like NineSigma and Innoget where people can post technologies or seek technologies. Aesica uses these forums quite extensively – it’s a great way to form networks without having to travel all over the globe.

Can you tell me about another interesting project you’re working on?

We manufacture controlled drugs such as codeine and one of the big issues being faced at the moment is diversion of these drugs for drug addicts, oxycodone is a good example where a lot of prescription oxycodone is being diverted and used illegally. There’s a big push in the pharma world to prevent that abuse so one project we’re working on at the moment is with an Australian company – that gives you an idea of the reach that’s required by an open innovation approach. It’s with a company called QRx Pharma and they’ve developed a technology called Stealth Beadlets – so ‘stealth’ because they’re not very obvious, they don’t significantly alter an existing formulation and ‘beadlets’ because that’s what they look like. It’s mechanism of action is to lessen the opportunity for abuse. When abusers try to crush opioid tablets containing stealth beadlets or dissolve them in alcohol or water, it releases a gel substance which inactivates the opioid so it cannot be snorted or injected. We saw the market pull – it’s in the news all the time. Now that the pharma business model has evolved, organisations like Aesica and QRx can consult on problems that might have been solved in a different way in the past. 

As part of your role you must come across a lot of innovations, is there anything that has really impressed you recently?

I saw some research from the University of Liverpool recently where they have utilised their leading research on chiral surfaces to design solid surfaces that would only bind to specific chiral molecules.2 So if you have a racemic mixture of an API it would only bind to one of the enantiomers. The other one wouldn’t bind so you could either remove it or extract it so the surface could be used for chiral separation. It’s some way from commercialisation but maybe in the future, you and I could be speaking about a commercial process where a simple, bare surface separates enantiomers of APIs.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Bringing a technology to market and to a point where it can start to have a positive impact on the business. True innovation – the commercialisation of ideas – is very demanding. Succeeding, and bringing ideas to commercial reality is very rewarding.