Sanofi-aventis' acquisition of the pharmaceutical development company that began as Selectide is "coincident with the technology, essentially, coming of age," according to Tucson Research Center scientific director Ken Wertman.
"It is inextricably tied to this sense we have reached the objective;" namely, to use technology to effectively develop and analyze compounds for further investigation as potential pharmaceuticals.
While previous ownership had "a lot of confidence," particularly in their ability to "predict outcomes" through scientific research, the discovery organization within Sanofi-aventis "was more modest in its self-assessment," Wertman said.
Sanofi-aventis emphasizes calculation and engineering, and requires "an exploratory mindset and an open-mindedness. This technology fit beautifully with that outlook.
"It's going there to see what happens," Wertman said. "This technology is a chemical space exploration vehicle, that's the most succinct way to describe what we do." It's about "going in the unknown."
"The mantra now is to be humble, and do good science," Wertman said. "If something useful comes out of it, you're good. It's a question of what direction you go exploring."
Wertman likes to call his colleagues "venture chemists."
"This is a group of entrepreneurs," said Wertman. "There are a lot of bright scientists."
His job "is about helping scientists align technology for greatest impact within the company," Wertman said. And, from the therapeutic side of Sanofi-aventis pharmaceutical research, Wertman helps identify "which projects Tucson could have the greatest impact upon."
Eight years ago, Tucson took on Sanofi-aventis projects "essentially stalled within the company, things important to the therapeutic departments" that were not moving ahead through the classic approach of screening the historical legacy of compounds, "and had not found a good starting point for optimization," Wertman said.
Scientists in Tucson thought there was "no better way to show new kinds of compounds were important.
"We made the argument that 'we don't have all the fundamental molecules we need,'" Wertman said. It was "audacious," he suggests, to "take the problem projects, and see if we could succeed. It took a lot of grit and determination. There is a lot of sense of ownership around the things we work on. We wanted to show the importance of the technology, that it can deliver, and that what it can deliver can be part of a successful next decade in pharmaceutical discovery.
"Now, somehow, we've achieved that core mission."
Scientists in Tucson are making "new kinds of molecules," the likes of which may never have been made before." They "choose the molecules we make for very good reasons," Wertman said, but they are explored objectively to "discover things you could not predict."
"We're trying to use the technology to push compounds further and further toward that candidate status," Wertman said. "The mission, fundamentally, hasn't changed. That's one of the interesting things about the Tucson story."