Scientific Advisory Board statement on the DrugTech Research Community (Sep 2022)
The Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) for the DrugTech research community (RC) visited Kuopio on Sep 26-27, 2022. SAB members attending on site were Olli Kallioniemi, Christel Bergström, Sven Frökjaer and Margareta Hammarlund-Udenaes.
DrugTech (Platform for Drug Discovery and Delivery Technologies) was launched in 2018 when a number of UEF’s research communities (RC) suggestions were assessed by an international panel. The DrugTech RC scored very high and received 6 out of 6 points as the overall score. The evaluation panel gave some suggestions on how the RC could be further developed.
The DrugTech SAB was invited to evaluate the progress in the DrugTech RC. Overall, the visit was very well planned and organized. The presentations from the directors and the individual PIs during the first day covered the research activities in the research groups including a presentation of the particular strengths and weaknesses for each group. Visits to the laboratories of the School of Pharmacy and to the AIV Institute were arranged on the second day, along with discussion of local and national infrastructures, such as the Drug Discovery and Chemical Biology network and the Centre for Scientific Computing.
The presentations gave a good general overview of the research profile in DrugTech and highlighted several common challenges that the PIs faced. However, due to the tight program it was not possible to go to an in-depth discussion of the projects and careers of the individual PIs.
On the basis of the program, the SAB has formulated several observations on the present status of the RC as well as recommendations for the future.
Highlights and observations
- DrugTech performs world-leading science in ocular therapeutics and computationally driven drug discovery.
- These core strengths are leveraged by linking to world-leading vascular science and viral vector technologies.
- The RC has strong capabilities in medicinal and analytical chemistry, as well as pharmaceutical technology.
- DrugTech operates excellent local research infrastructures and has the opportunity to make use of national infrastructures.
- The RC has successfully recruited high-profile international visiting professors.
- The recruitment of internationally experienced young scientists is viewed as a good strategy for renewal of competence.
- DrugTech has started to close the gap towards biologicals and biopharmaceuticals by establishing a protein lab.
- Overall, the RC presents a collaborative platform with high potential for further development.
- Several of the comments indicated by the research assessment 2019 have already been fulfilled.
- The DrugTech RC is on a positive trajectory with regard to publication output and awarded funding.
From the material supplied and presentations given it is clear that the research performed within DrugTech is of very high quality, ranging from internationally renowned to world leading. Ocular drug delivery plays a key role in DrugTech and while this is a niche research area, the methods and technologies developed can be used also to cross-link and cross-fertilize other research areas. In particular, the SAB was impressed by the link to the vascular science and the close collaboration between drug delivery scientists and medicinal chemists (experimental and computational) as well as with medicinal scientists and clinical scientists in this field. The access to excellent research infrastructure, both locally at UEF and at the national level, is viewed as a necessity for the RC to maintain its position. The impressive recruitment of two international world-leading visiting professors and the renewal of competence by recruitment of younger researchers with international experience will be a successful strategy to increase research quality and to provide a wider expertise and knowledgebase for the community. The SAB was pleased to see that the management board had made progress in addressing several recommendations from the research assessment in 2019, including establishing a protein laboratory and recruiting a young PI to run this laboratory. The SAB also noted that the number of papers as well as approved funding had increased since the establishment of the center.
Thank you for these positive comments that will help us to further develop the activities of DrugTech Research Community.
Challenges and recommendations
General and organization
- There has been a positive development in the overall number of publications, but the SAB would like to see specific, high-level ambition from each PI. DrugTech should not just count more publications but focus on more high-profile and impactful science. Number of citations may be an additional measure of impact along with the number of publications. Highly competitive grant schemes, such as the ERC funding scheme, also represent suitable metrics for future success, along with awards and other acknowledgements.
We agree with the SAB. High-level ambition will be installed as an integral part of DrugTech activity. We shall aim and monitor achievements based on the following indicators:
Centre of Excellence
ERC and other EU grants; NIH and FDA funding
Publications in JUFO2-3 journals
Technology transfer of innovations and international funding from companies
Supporting activities in reaching high ambitions at international scale include:
Mentoring system (see more below)
Promoting international networking of the PIs with ‘pharma competence map’ that will include internationally recognized groups with DrugTech connections
Oral presentations in conferences to foster international networking
- It was not clear to the SAB what the benefits are to PIs involved in DrugTech and how that status differs from being a general faculty member. In their presentations, the PIs did not convey a strong message of the importance of DrugTech to the success of their own research. Also, each PI focused on presenting his/her own research area and accomplishments, not those achieved via the synergy within the DrugTech. Such synergistic effects may be missed if not more actively pursued. Thus, the SAB feels that DrugTech has not yet accomplished the full potential of this collaborative platform.
It is true that not all PIs realize the potential benefits from DrugTech RC and the full potential of collaborative platform has not yet been achieved. The potential for synergistic benefits must be made more evident to the PIs. DrugTech information and networking possibilities will be achieved via regular meetings, including 1-2 annual conferences of two days, visitors’ seminars and live seminars in which DrugTech PIs present their own current research results.
In addition, we shall have internal discussions with every PI to motivate them to be active within RC context. Mentoring system (see below) will also facilitate synergies within DrugTech RC.
- The SAB suggests that the RC will take efforts to brand and broadly communicate its own strategy and achievements more prominently in local, national and international forums, including social media channels. We suggest hiring a part-time communication officer or a consultant to edit a constant flow of news.
Currently, we use our web pages for this purpose. DrugTech does not have designated funds to hire communication officer and we cannot obtain such funds. However, DrugTech coordinator and the communication segment in the administration of UEF will be utilized for this purpose. Social media activity organized by the School of Pharmacy will also give visibility to DrugTech.
- If UEF has selected DrugTech as a special high-profile research community, among the best at the UEF, we hope that the university could also highlight and emphasize this research in external and internal communications. DrugTech and other top RCs should be well visible on the main pages of the university and be featured prominently on the web and in other communication materials. UEF would benefit greatly by highlighting these types of programs to the outside. This would also serve the need of Drug Tech to achieve increased local, national and international visibility and recognition. Communication efforts will eventually pay off in the form of better visibility and hence opportunities for recruitment of high-profile PIs, postdocs, and PhD students.
We agree that the university should highlight the top RCs in their communication. We shall promote this idea within the UEF.
- Several of the prominent PIs of DrugTech will retire in the next 2-5 years. This is a challenge for the continuation of the RC and the research profile, teaching and innovations in this area. At the same time, this presents a golden opportunity to bring new talent and research expertise to the center via new recruitment. The SAB believes that not all the senior positions should be filled as full professors, but that the target should be to globally recruit young scientists to tenure-track positions in an open search. We understand that DrugTech does not control the recruitments, and that decisions rest at the faculty and the department. However, we strongly suggest against filling professorships with local candidates without a fully open search and international recruitment. Progressive open recruitment is central to the ability of UEF to continue a leadership role in the DrugTech area.
Generation change will affect DrugTech in the coming 2-5 years. This situation is potentially problematic but may open also opportunities for the next generation. We shall use the following approaches to ensure smooth transition:
Most vacancies should be filled using tenure track approach.
In the case of strong research programs, the selection process should ensure smooth continuation of research tradition and use of acquired infrastructure.
Open calls will be used, but bright and competitive local candidates may also be selected.
- While general funding levels for DrugTech have increased, most PIs still struggle to raise sufficient external funding to maintain a competitive program and critical mass of expertise within their own groups. Most of the grants and the biggest grants seem to go to some senior professors and several efforts (see below) are needed to change this.
This is an important point, and we aim to solve this problem with intensified mentoring (see below).
- Gender balance is a problem! It appears that students are often female, while PIs are mostly male and that in the leadership team the female representation is weak despite several qualified women being present in the community.
We agree that gender balance should be improved. We shall increase female membership to the management board, thereby giving higher representation also to the junior PIs . In the case of equal competence, female candidates will be chosen. It is noteworthy that all PIs who will retire in the next few years are males. Thus, it is likely that the generation change will also improve the gender balance.
- We hope DrugTech can become competitive in a new PROFI search. However, it is important to progress carefully when promoting another profiling effort from the same community when the execution of the previous one is still under way. The new PROFI idea should either be built directly as a new second-phase of DrugTech or be clearly separate and non-overlapping. We hope that UEF will carry out the selection of PROFI areas in an open competitive bottom-up manner like most other universities in Finland have done.
Thank you for this insight. We shall plan the new PROFI either as second stage development or as a new initiative, possibly in collaboration with some other RC. Hopefully, UEF will allow a bottom-up approach that utilizes the creativity of the research communities. In the case of a top-down approach, our chances to influence are much less. Our ideas for the next PROFI round will be presented to SAB during the evaluation of 2023.
The recently launched UEFPro system may offer possibilities for 2nd stage for our international visiting top professors. In the case of university researchers who were recruited in PROFI5 and 6 programmes, our aim is to secure their continuing employment at UEF by using tenure track approach or other means.
Community building, PI recruitment and selection
- When renewal is needed and new positions are announced at any level, it is recommended to always create an open search for talent globally. If local candidates then score on the top and become selected, that is a positive sign of an internationally cutting-edge RC.
Yes, we agree (see more detailed answer above).
- The current launch and development of DrugTech has created a number of PIs with small research groups. It is important that the groups are connected together in larger programs to support and strengthen each other. Nominating local PIs to join the center is a difficult task, and a balancing act between being inclusive to create a broad collaborative research community and exclusive to achieve a center of excellence. The right balance needs to be achieved here.
- Several of the current groups seem to be “minimalistic” and at the lower end to have critical mass of excellence. The SAB recommendation is to combine PIs into strategic research and technology programs that are much more dynamic and cross-disciplinary, and better branded than the current four (rather loose) research themes. Each program could be led by a research director, who will form and direct a coherent program and assume responsibility for the program, including mentoring of young PIs within the program.
Answers to the two points above are merged here.
Coherent research themes, including experienced PIs and young PIs, will be formed in DrugTech RC. The experienced PIs will have tutoring responsibilities to help the junior PIs to tackle important research questions and increase their research funding. The structure should also facilitate collaborations. Suggested cohesive research areas: 1) Ocular Therapeutics and 2) Drug Discovery and Pharmacology. The PIs will choose 1-2 research areas of interest. The PIs will remain independent, but they should benefit from the synergies and mentoring within the research areas. Also the senior researchers who are expected to become future PIs will be included in these activities of the research areas.
- It was unclear to the SAB how DrugTech used the RC funding from the university and PROFI to promote the establishment of a community, beyond focusing on support to individual groups or technologies.
UEF has given salary funds for half-time coordinator. She has organized management group meetings, internal conferences, EU-funding info, online seminars, and SAB visit. So far, these have been community activities.
PROFI-5 and 6 projects were obtained based on RC’s joint activity. PROFI programmes were used to foster scientific excellence in the fields of medicinal chemistry, drug transport, molecular modeling, pharmaceutical nanotechnology, mass spectrometry/proteomics, and protein production. The expertise, methods and infrastructure from these PROFI-programmes are available for collaborations within DrugTech and beyond.
Mentoring and promoting research careers
- Mentoring the young PIs and helping them to develop their careers is of central importance. The SAB would encourage systematic extensive mentoring of all young PIs (and even some that are not so young but not yet fully established as a PI), not just for all grants and publications, but also for presentation skills. This is also something where the PIs can support each other by peer mentoring.
A systematic mentoring programme will be established and described in more detail to SAB during the next visit. The mentoring will include also presentation skills of the PIs.
- The role of young PIs could be improved by offering them clear Co-PI roles in joint grant applications with the most senior PIs. This would also be beneficial for the CVs of the younger PIs (including international senior people moving to UEF). Becoming successful in retaining their own funding and achieving a critical size of their groups is a significant challenge for a young PI.
Co-PI approach will be utilized when applicable as well as partly joint group members are possible based on collaborations between groups. Also, sharing laboratory resources helps your PIs, particularly in the beginning.
- The seniors are asked to guide the young PIs in e.g., where and when to seek funding, such as to avoid multiple competitive grant applications to the same sources. DrugTech is also encouraged to consider a broader scope of grant sources, such as Gates Foundation and other international foundations or rare disease funding.
Avoiding competition may be impossible in practice, because so many PIs apply funding in the same calls from Academy of Finland and some foundations. However, broadening the scope of funding sources is very important and this will be promoted. ‘Grant calendar’ will be designed for DrugTech PIs to include also more rare funding sources (especially funding organization abroad).
- When creating joint projects, the senior PIs could, at least every now and then, let the more junior PIs have last author and/or corresponding author positions.
This is important. This practice is already actively used but will be further increased.
- In order to be eligible for ERC, it is important that young PIs exercise mobility and establish themselves clearly independently from their PhD or Postdoc supervisors. Thus, there may be roadblocks for the ERC success in such local arrangements.
Role of young PIs will be elevated to foster their career development (incl. requirements of ERC). We shall try to find a good balance with two aspects: independence from previous supervisor may mean reduction in critical mass and resources, whereas integration to bigger supervisor’s group leads to less independence.
- DrugTech should arrange mentoring and training of the PIs in order to become more competitive on the international scene, and also leadership training. The availability of UEF central resources in this regard was not clear to the SAB, but there may be a way of working with these issues.
Internal mentoring system will be launched utilizing the competence of active and successful DrugTech PIs, SAB and external experts (more details during next SAB visit). DrugTech will propose that UEF would organize leadership education to the PIs.
- Peer mentoring sessions among the PIs can also be of help, as senior PIs may not always be available.
This aspect will be integrated to the upcoming mentoring program.
Infrastructure and services
- It is very timely now to renew and reactivate the commitment towards the National Drug Development Center. This will be a national networking effort and it would be good to make plans proactively in Kuopio. This can complement the national DDCB activity, but with substantially more stringent QC, SOPs and other documentation requirements to fulfill the needs of translational drug discovery.
The National Drug Development Center is still at early phase and not active yet. Some DrugTech RC PIs were involved in the planning phases of the National Drug Development Center.The contacts of RC with this organization will be established when the center becomes active.
- A systematic plan to keep up and update aging equipment (e.g. a variety of mass specs) at the RC is needed.
This is done and integrated with the annual infrastructure investments of the Faculty of Health Sciences and FIRI calls from Academy of Finland. Some recent successes include high-end freeze dryer, imaging mass spectrometry and microfluidics for pharmaceutical nanotechnology.
- We applaud the ongoing UEF plans to offer senior scientists with important infrastructure roles new long-term career options.
Unfortunately, it turned out that UEF does provide extra funds for this purpose, but Faculties are allowed to make permanent ‘staff scientist’ recruitments. We shall try to use this route to provide continuity to the key senior scientists with infrastructure roles.
We suggest that the DrugTech managing board will explore ways on making this SAB advisory document open and available to the internal and external community. We also suggest that the DrugTech board creates its own response to the many recommendations in this document.
We thank again the organizers of the site visit for creating an interesting program and for the opportunity to get to know the Drug Tech research community. We look forward to the next opportunity to interact.
Olli Kallioniemi, Professor, Karolinska Institutet, Director of the SciLifeLab
Christel Bergström, Professor, Uppsala University
Sven Frökjaer, Professor, Copenhagen University
Margareta Hammarlund-Udenaes, Professor, Uppsala University