Common Characteristics of Great Scientists and Medicinal Chemists

You don’t have to be a Medicinal Chemist to perceive the difficulties and obstacles involved in the introduction of new medicines. Breakthrough drugs and medicines are undeniably rare because drug discovery is a multiparameter optimization problem: many conditions and constraints must be satisfied and met in order for a new compound to have a chance of improving patients’ lives.

Despite these challenges, Mark A. Murcko from the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry has had the pleasure of meeting a handful of medicinal chemists and scientists. These people are described as being extremely passionate and rightfully carry the title of “Drug Discoverers”. But what exactly is it that makes these people so great at what they do?

In order to get a better understanding, Murcko has formed a pair of lists that describe the characteristics and traits he has observed in the industry. Although success is never guaranteed in drug discovery, these behaviors are just as relevant today in predictors of success as they were decades ago. The traits can be broken down into two categories: “general” and “discipline-specific”. General traits are going to be those common to all great scientists, while the discipline-specific ones are more specialized behaviors relevant to the medicinal chemistry enterprise. Let’s take a look at some of these features.

  • General Characteristics

    • They are intellectually curious and constantly learning throughout their entire lives.
      • They have broad interests, constantly are reading, and can efficiently “connect the dots”.
    • They stay tightly focused on important problems.
      • They are fearless and relentless in overcoming obstacles. They want to continue moving forward, so they welcome rigorous debate and fresh perspectives.
    • They are pragmatic.
      • They look for the most practical ways to solve problems and keep moving forward.
    • They are obsessed with data.
      • They crave it, agonize over it, and constantly question it. They also love to look at raw data, ponder the outliers, and respect the “craftsmanship” of a well-designed experiment.
    • They have a strong sense of urgency and always seem to be pushing for the next breakthrough.
      • Often this is driven by a deeply nested sense of compassion or a response to the suffering of a loved one. They are driven more so by the hope of being successful than the fear of failure.
  • Discipline Specific Characteristics of Medicinal Chemists

    • They are creative drug designers.
      • They are frequently able to come up with novel ideas, often seemingly out of left field. While many of these ideas do not pan out, most of them are worth consideration because they are highly instructive and sometimes successful.
    • They manage the properties of their compounds.
      • Excellent medicinal chemists do not fixate on potency; they are always looking for ways to manage the properties of their compounds.
    • They do not give up on validated targets.
      • These kinds of professionals know that validated targets are rare and wonderful things, worthy of the significant effort. An effective team will pursue drug candidates despite all obstacles and setbacks, either continually refining the existing compounds or relentlessly looking for new approaches.
    • They care deeply about biology.
      • To be successful in these fields, a deep understanding of disease biology is essential.
    • They know the history of drug discovery.
      • They have absorbed the “lore” of the field. They effortlessly recognize existing drugs and often know the history of how those drugs were discovered. They know what has been tried before and they know what to watch out for. They celebrate the craft of medicinal chemistry and are always interested in trading stories with other open minds.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the intent is that it’ll hopefully serve useful to some medicinal chemists, particularly those starting out in their careers. It may even also serve as a reminder to those already well established in their fields. It is imperative to note that of course success is never guaranteed in drug discovery, and no checklist or set of definite traits can capture the difficulties faced in drug discovery. Nonetheless, Murcko provides an excellent starting point for medicinal chemists and scientists digging for a breakthrough in medicine. To read Murcko’s perspective, please find his original work here.

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