Science in the marketplace: pharmaceutics
In his scientific career Dr Aaron Sin has navigated from engineering to biology, to developing commercial life science research products. This has given him unique insight into the inner workings of how scientific research finds applications in the marketplace, he insists that research and investment ultimately have just one aim: human welfare.
Sin was a chemical engineer before bringing his understanding of microfluid dynamics into immunology research. Now, he is putting his diverse background to use in helping find new marketable diagnosis kits for diseases such as cancer.
“For me it’s just a different way of looking at using my training to benefit mankind,” says Sin. “Instead of doing the research myself, I try to understand what people are generally doing and then apply that to create products, be it a drug or a diagnostic test that makes things easier and faster for researchers.”
Engineering to treating medical conditions
Sin’s chemical engineering degree focused on understanding how drugs can be tested in animals. He developed microfluidic structures that mimic tiny blood vessels, later used during his first post-doc at Harvard Medical School to sort White Blood Cells (WBCs) in order to make diagnostic decisions.
After that, he switched to immunology where his research focused on how WBCs in the bloodstream respond to signals that intestinal and lung cells secrete during infections.
“If someone has a bacterial infection, especially in a country with poor sanitation, you don’t want the body to go into overdrive and develop bad inflammation. There is a high chance that a patient will die from inflammation rather than from the infection itself,” explains Sin. “Being able to stop that effectively is what people are looking for in drugs.”
Transition to proteomics
While looking for a faculty job, a chance encounter took Sin to cutting edge research in proteomics, which concerns the study of proteins produced by the body. He found his engineering background to be helpful in coming up with new life science research products.
Proteomics makes it possible for diseases like cancer to be diagnosed with a simple blood test, and Sin’s first job at Sigma Aldrich was to look for new technologies in this area of research.
“Current diagnostic tests for cancer are very invasive and 80% of patients who go through the procedures turn out to be perfectly fine,” says Sin. “With proteomics, disease diagnosis is possible with a simple test.”
These blood tests look for certain marker proteins in the bloodstream. Using mass spectrometry, thousands of samples can be compared to assess protein levels to identify signs of disease.
“In proteomics we are looking for technologies that can streamline the process and simplify samples so that researchers can get down to the markers they are looking for and make the discovery and hopefully come back to us and help us make the kits for diagnostics,” adds Sin.
Many researchers are working to see if similar blood tests can be arranged to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. “Although the industry isn’t directly responsible for research, it is supporting medical science in many ways,” says Sin.
With the field of biology opening up, scientists are increasingly dabbling in research that goes beyond their area of specialisation. They might be trained in genetics but need to work in proteomics; they may be trained in cell biology but have to be involved in biochemistry.
“We are finding that more and more people are not experts in the techniques they are using, but more and more they are looking at systems biology. They’re having to examine all the different things that may happen, requiring them to learn new techniques. But it is not feasible for scientists to have to learn new techniques all the time. So that’s where we come in,” explains Sin.
Mixing science with the private sector
“Large companies are not very good at making scientific discoveries. They are better at making sure that their products, whether it’s a drug or a scientific research kit or diagnostic test are stable and that it can be made the same way every single time so other people can rely on it,” says Sin.
Scientific breakthroughs usually first happen in academia, are then taken up by smaller companies, and those start-ups are subsequently bought up by larger firms.
“The benefit of having large companies is that they can make these discoveries widely available,” says Sin. “They alone have the broad distribution channels that can benefit mankind for years to come. A small company may make great things once and the next time they struggle to make it the same way again.”
With the world’s ever-increasing population and lifespans, there will always be a need to spend more money on healthcare, which means countries need to find a way to control costs by funding scientists.
“Unfortunately in business, just like in research and academia, the amount of funding is available is determined by the state of the economy,” says Sin.
Recent political upheavals in Europe, the US, and Southeast Asia have led to turbulence in the marketplace, and this has affected funding, resulting in layoffs.
Funding for research in the private sector isn’t easy either.
“In private companies we find money based on how much money we can make. We have to make products that researchers and other customers want to buy, which means we need to be really smart about what our customers may use, and what makes them want to spend their hard earned research dollars on our products.”
Sin adds: “When we profit, a lot of it goes to shareholders fortunately, or unfortunately. Some of it gets reinvested back into new product development. But business is all about making a profit.”
However, with today’s social media, companies understand that they can’t deal with profit all the time, and that science also needs to find antidotes to diseases that afflict many in poorer parts of the world. For example, one of the projects that Sin is working on under the Merck Group is finding better tests for malaria.
“Some companies are going to be purely about profit. And when companies get big enough, customers start demanding them to be socially aware and benefit society as a whole rather than just making money,” says Sin. “It’s not a perfect system but it does push some companies into developing more socially necessary drugs.”
He added that long-term companies will find a way to cover their costs in these countries as well, making it cost neutral for them initially and potentially profitable later.
Advances in next-generation DNA sequencing have opened up new possibilities for both science and business in the era of molecular medicine.
“Specifically, DNA sequencing means that a lot of new discoveries are available to people but it also means there is a lot more data that needs to be analysed,” says Sin.
Ever since the conclusion of the Human Genome Project, people now have a catalogue of every gene in the human body but their meaning and mechanism are still mostly unknown.
“I think from our standpoint something like this is really good because it shifts the technology focus to a different area so that we get to develop newer products customers are interested in,” says Sin. “It gives us opportunities to build and look for new ways to develop new products and therefore reinvest in new research ventures.”
Dr Aaron Sin obtained his BChE and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and Cornell University in 1998 and 2002 respectively. He received a Croucher Foundation Fellowship in 2003 for postdoctoral research at Harvard University and is currently the head of Emerging Biology R&D at Sigma Aldrich.
To view Sin’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.