To Temple, after career at Wyeth

Posted: October 27, 2008

Magid Abou-Gharbia always wanted to work at a university. But in his early job search, the best offer came from Wyeth pharmaceuticals in Collegeville, so that's where he went.

A quarter-century later, after helping develop five new Wyeth drugs and heading a division of 500 scientists, Abou-Gharbia is getting his wish.

Now, he hopes to merge two worlds - corporate and academic - as head of Temple University's new Center for Drug Discovery Research.

Question: How did the Temple job come up?

Answer: . . . I was on the board of visitors for a number of years for Temple's School of Pharmacy. . . . Temple School of Pharmacy dean Peter Doukas approached me a year or two years ago. I decided that now is my time to give back to students and scientists in academia.

Q: What are the sources of funding for your center?

A: Initially, of course, there was seed funding of $1 million from the university and from some very accomplished alumni. We also look forward to getting funds from different sources - from government grants, from big pharma and from biotech.

Q: Some experts worry that industry funding taints university research. What do you think about this, and what do you suggest to reduce conflicts of interest?

A: Collaboration between big pharma and academic institutions is essential. There really is no company that has access to the resources to do all the research and development required. It's a challenging task, a very costly and lengthy process. It can take up to 15 years and cost $800 million to $1 billion, so it's very important to collaborate with universities.

There is also no way a university can take an idea from discovery all the way to market. We're really not involved here with anything involving publicity about the drugs.

Bringing new drugs to patients is a very noble profession, but unfortunately it is poorly understood by the public because the focus is mainly on drug prices.

Q: Some experts studying this issue have said that requiring disclosure and transparency of funding would at least make people more aware of potential conflicts. What do you think about disclosure?

A: Disclosure is good.

Q: Many universities, perhaps most notably the University of Pennsylvania in this area, are competing for research funding from drug and biotech companies. How will Temple compete in this atmosphere?

A: You compete with your science and your people. I would say Temple has been doing the right thing by attracting new talent and adding faculty. You mentioned Penn. At Temple, the dean of science and technology was the former dean of science and chemistry at Penn.

Q: What got you interested in science as a child?

A: I was fortunate. In high school, I had a really dedicated professor and chemist who taught me. . . . Everybody thinks about acid and base, for example, but there are these acids that are available in nature. So he would bring in, for example, vinegar, an acid. And he would do things like create gases from these natural sources and fill balloons with these liberated gases. For me, it was fascinating.

Q: Do you have children?

A: I have two daughters who, believe it or not, are pharmacists. And a son. He is studying muscular therapy. I also have four grandchildren and a fifth on the way.

Q: As you've gone through life, what advice has helped you?

A: I got this advice from my late professor, Dan Swern, a professor of chemistry who also taught at the medical school. When I was first looking for a job, I would get disappointed, and maybe the environment wasn't ready for someone from Egypt, I don't know.

But he would say, "I want you to understand, all you need is one opportunity, and knowing you, you will excel."

So that is what I tell my students: Try to see the outside world and never give up. All you need is an opportunity, and you're going to make the most out of it, and you will excel in your professional career.

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.

Magid Abou-Gharbia

Age: 58.

Birthplace: Cairo.

Hometown: Exton.

Occupation: Director, Temple University School of Pharmacy's Center for Drug Discovery Research; professor of medicinal chemistry.

Achievements: Previously, as senior vice president of chemical and screening science at Wyeth, he worked on teams that developed five major drugs.

Looking forward to: Birth of fifth grandchild.

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