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From Molecule to Medication

Von Carsten Bösel

Molecular biologist Dr Heike Neubauer is laboratory manager at the Biberach research centre of pharmaceuticals company Boehringer Ingelheim. Her declared aim: to someday accompany the development of a new medication from initial idea to market introduction.

From Molecule to Medication© Boehringer IngelheimThe great aim of molecular biologist Dr. Heike Neubauer: to develop effective and marketable medications
One in ten thousand. Those are the average odds in pharmaceutical research that an examined substance will ever actually be administered to patients. The journey from discovering an initial molecule to marketable medication usually takes over a decade and is often accompanied by setbacks or even the abrupt cancellation of a project if new knowledge suddenly renders its working hypotheses untenable. In addition to their scientific expertise, researchers particularly need stamina, creativity and flexibility on this long and challenging road.

One who perfectly fits this job description is Dr. Heike Neubauer. Since 2003, the 41-year-old has worked as a laboratory manager at the Biberach research centre of pharmaceuticals company Boehringer Ingelheim, which employs approximately 3,700 scientists, technical staff and assistants worldwide in pre-clinical research and development and was named best employer in the pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals industry by expert journal Science in 2007. Heike Neubauer's research concentrates on the field of metabolic diseases and on discovering new molecules that could potentially be effective in combating type 2 diabetes, elevated blood lipid levels (dyslipidaemia) and arteriosclerosis.

In addition to the initial basic research, the molecular biologist's field of work includes designing various biological test systems for optimising the chemical structures of potential active substances. These preliminary experiments are important for medication development, the actual objective of the project work. "You have to work very hard and keep asking yourself whether it all still makes sense and your hypotheses are correct", Neubauer cautions. "A lot of projects are lost between basic project idea and clinical application." But the Biberach metabolism research facility's record is more than presentable: several molecules in the field of diabetes have already taken the first hurdles and entered the clinical development phase.

Stages in academic and industrial research

The subjects of diabetes and metabolic disorders already interested Neubauer, originally from Marbach, when she was studying nutrition sciences at the University of Hohenheim. She wrote her Diplom thesis in Groningen, in the Netherlands, and then completed her doctorate in molecular biology at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection Medicine of the University of Tübingen. She then spent a postdoc period at Nestlé's Swiss research centre and three years as a scientist in diabetes research at the University of Lausanne before transferring to Boehringer Ingelheim and returning to industrial research in 2003. So Heike Neubauer is familiar with both worlds. This is unusual in Germany, where transferring from academic to industrial research and vice versa is the exception.

For a long time in Lausanne she struggled to decide whether to return to Germany at all. At the end of a lengthy education she was in search of a management role with project and personnel responsibility. Aiming for a career in academic research would have meant working towards a professorship. "But I think I had maybe lost contact with the German education system too much for that", says Neubauer today. "People like me who have spent many years abroad will not find suitable structures for reintegrating here." Before she had to seriously make a choice, however, the job advert from Boehringer Ingelheim turned up, along with that decisive bit of luck: the chemistry was literally immediately right, and she got the job.

Interdisciplinary exchange is important

To this day, Heike Neubauer hasn't regretted her decision. What she particularly values about research in industry is the intensive interaction with scientists from other disciplines: "We work in multi-disciplinary teams here, i.e. teamwork is an extremely important factor. You have to try to interest and motivate your colleagues from the various departments, and then work together to reconcile all the facts in order to achieve your goal of developing a medication." At university on the other hand things are often far less interactive, she says, because everyone is foremostly interested in pursuing their own research objectives, publishing and building their own reputation.

Immersing herself for years and down to the smallest details in a scientific field of expertise purely for the sake of knowledge isn't Heike Neubauer's thing anyway. Implementing gained knowledge into practical use and working on projects aimed at a clearly defined goal are what particularly determine the special attraction of research and development in a company for her: "That motivates me and can make up for a fair bit of overtime. Gaining new insights may be fascinating in and of itself, but being able to actually apply them to heal or ameliorate illness is what really fascinates me."
Along with the many scientific, technical, financial and patent law issues and decisions she deals with every day in her project work, a particular challenge lies in the responsibility associated with her research. "We bear great responsibility firstly towards the company that is making a relatively high investment, and secondly towards the patients who will be taking this medication someday. That makes it interesting, but it can also create a lot of pressure sometimes."

Fit to meet the demands of day-to-day business

Heike Neubauer's way of compensating for the many hours she spends in the laboratory is exercise. The passionate cyclist has been all over France on several tours and battled her way up numerous steep mountain passes on one of her four bicycles. "I like being physically active, and cycling in the mountains helps me concentrate on my own capabilities", she says. "You have to be determined and overcome your own weaker self." But she also enjoys relaxing bicycle tours with friends, where team spirit and co-ordination are part of the fun - just as in her research work.

Neubauer is reticent when it comes to predicting her future career. She wants to continue learning, developing and exploring new paths. A company like Boehringer Ingelheim offers many opportunities to do this. But then the scientist does open up a little: "My great aim would be to just once accompany a project from the initial idea through the clinical development phase to registration. To actually hold, after many years of work, a finished medication in your hand of which you know: people really take this to reduce their symptoms and improve their health. To get there, that would be a dream." She knows the odds. But Heike Neubauer is not one to give up easily.

academics :: Februar 2010