What can you do as an encore to a successful 20-year career at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)? For Roger J. Porter, MD, the answer was to join the clinical research team of a large pharmaceutical company – Wyeth. When offered the position of Vice President of Clinical Pharmacology at Wyeth in 1992, Dr. Porter left the world of academic and government research to join the fast-paced world of the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. Porter's career with NINDS began in 1969 after his internship, with a two-year stint as a staff associate in the epilepsy research section. He left NINDS to complete a neurology residency at the University of California-San Francisco, but returned to NINDS in 1974 – this time to the Epilepsy Branch of the Neurological Disorders program. He later established the Medical Neurology Branch at NINDS and became the NINDS Deputy Director before he left the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to join Wyeth. In his current position as Vice President and Deputy Head of Clinical Research and Development, he helps to coordinate Wyeth's worldwide network of clinical researchers.
In an interview with Neurology Today, Dr. Porter discussed his experience transitioning from a career as an NIH scientist to that of an industry researcher, and the things he has learned along the way.
WHAT ORIGINALLY INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A NEUROLOGIST?
I have had a longstanding interest in brain research. For a while in medical school, I was deciding between psychiatry and neurology, but those two years at the NINDS epilepsy section under Dr. J. Kiffin Penry pushed me in the direction of neurology.
WHAT PROFESSIONAL INFLUENCES SHAPED YOUR INTEREST IN NEUROLOGY?
The driving force of my research career has really been my interest in epilepsy, which was inspired by working with Dr. Penry, who was incredibly passionate about epilepsy research. It was such a pleasure to work with him that, after I completed my residency, I returned to NINDS to work in his lab and with his team for a second time.
There, I first worked in the extramural epilepsy branch, where we coordinated large multicenter clinical trials of antiepileptic drugs. We worked on a series of clinical trials with a fantastic team of researchers, patterning ourselves a little after the National Cancer Institute. NIH really allows you to specialize in something like epilepsy research without major distractions.
Later, I worked in the intramural epilepsy research program and formed the Medical Neurology Branch, which had a Clinical Epilepsy section. In the intramural research program, I did hands-on research – designing and conducting clinical trials on antiepileptic drugs – as well as research on classifying the types of epilepsy. We were among the first researchers in the US to test sodium valproate, now a common epilepsy drug.
WHAT WERE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT ACCOMPLISHMENTS AT NIH?
In the extramural research program, I am most proud of my support of the Antiepileptic Drug Development Program, especially the initiation of a series of multicenter controlled clinical trials to test these new drugs.
In the intramural program, our pharmacological investigations included documentation of the limited efficacy of phensuximide and the efficacy of magnesium valproate. We studied the interesting interaction of phenobarbital and valproate, and pioneered non-sedative regimens for chronic therapy. We also wrote the early definitive papers on intensive monitoring of patients with epilepsy, presaging an incredible proliferation of such monitoring units throughout the world. We defined several seizure types, including the absence seizure and the secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizure, work that began with Dr. Penry and continued after his departure from the NIH in 1979.
While I was Deputy Director of NINDS, I chaired the White House Decade of the Brain project, which was exciting in a different way. The director of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy asked me to set up a government-wide committee to coordinate all the brain research projects being conducted in various government departments. There was a phenomenal amount of brain research going on, much of it at NINDS, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; even the Departments of Defense and the Environment had ongoing brain research. We published a monograph that was a catalogue of excitement on brain research. It outlined where we should be going with such research, as well as what had been accomplished. I left NINDS shortly after the monograph was published, and this activity waned with the change in administration.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE NIH TO WORK FOR WYETH?
As with many NIH scientists my age, I found it difficult to educate my children on a government salary. My two children were entering college, so when the opportunity to work for Wyeth – an opportunity filled with both research and financial rewards – came along, I took it. I had published 150 papers and 12 books, and felt that something new was in order. I was ready for a change in my professional life, and the change to industry was very invigorating.
PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR WORK NOW AT WYETH RESEARCH
I share, with my boss, charge of more than 1,000 clinical investigators in our worldwide clinical department. I have direct responsibilities for clinical pharmacology, as well as all research outside of the US, except in Japan. Obviously, I assist in the enormous administrative aspects of this large clinical research team.
WHAT ASPECTS OF YOUR JOB ARE EASIER AT WYETH THAN THEY WERE AT NIH?
The fact that everyone is on the same team makes it easier to get things done. Many may not believe it, but I work in a very altruistic environment; we are trying to create drugs that make a significant difference in people's lives, and that can be very energizing. For example, we have a new and successful antidepressant that is different from other available antidepressants, and it helps people who aren't helped by other drugs. That feels good, and makes us enthusiastic about our work.
One thing that is not really different is the bureaucracy. People often complain about government bureaucracy, but there is also bureaucracy in industry, and it behaves very similarly to that in government, often making it hard to get things done.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE RESEARCH ENVIRONMENTS AT NIH AND WYETH?
Research in the pharmaceutical industry has a much narrower scope. You are only working on a few compounds at a time. In fact, when scientists start working at a pharmaceutical company, they may be assigned a single compound to investigate and work with for a year or two, or more. On the other hand, as Deputy Director of NINDS, I had exposure to a huge variety of basic and clinical programs ranging all over the field of neurology, from Parkinson disease to epilepsy, from multiple sclerosis to myasthenia gravis.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in both industry and government research. The research environment at the NIH is phenomenal, especially for a basic scientist, because of the range of research avenues that one can explore. Industry, however, can focus efforts and get things done in a way that government agencies just can't.
I was very proud, for example, of initiating four multicenter epilepsy drug trials for the Epilepsy Branch of NINDS in two years. In 1992, I soon had a similar team at Wyeth producing one (admittedly smaller) clinical trial every week. The effectiveness of industry is indeed impressive. In industry, everyone on your team is aimed at the same thing – making effective and safe drugs and getting them out to the market. It is an incredible challenge, and requires a great deal of teamwork and energy, especially to maintain quality and timeliness.
DO YOU ENVISION A CONTINUATION OF THE EXODUS OF ACADEMIC RESEARCHERS TO INDUSTRY?
This has actually been the trend for the last five to 10 years. Top academic scientists are being lured away because of improvements in the clinical and basic science research environments at pharmaceutical companies. It is a lot easier to make the transition now. And really, industry researchers have many of the same goals that academic researchers do. Both are ultimately looking for the truth. Industry researchers, like academic researchers, are looking for safe and effective drugs that are useful to society. In the future, this trend will definitely continue.
DO YOU THINK THERE WILL BE CLOSER RESEARCH PARTNERSHIPS BETWEEN ACADEMIA AND INDUSTRY?
I think so. At Wyeth, we already have partnerships with academic institutions. The academic medical centers are equipped to provide the patients that industry needs for clinical trials, because of their hospitals. Academic partnerships also provide us with scientific expertise in the realm of basic science and in clinical investigation. We will always work closely with academic institutions. Indeed, I have maintained professorships in Neurology and Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, respectively.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ACADEMIC NEURO-SCIENTISTS CONTEMPLATING A CAREER MOVE TO INDUSTRY?
I get this question all the time, often from neurologists in private practice as opposed to academic researchers. For a neurologist in private practice, the biggest change, I think, is that in an industry position, you spend a great deal of time sitting at a desk in front of a computer, and you don't see patients, which is your primary activity in private practice. Some people like this change; others don't.
For academic researchers, you also lose some freedom in the kind of research that you will be working on, and your work becomes more focused. You must do something that is relevant to your assigned area. If you are working on an epilepsy research team, you won't have the freedom to study a Parkinson drug, for example. However, in industry, you gain access to financial resources, you don't have to spend time writing grants or look for funding, and you also have a large support team. All in all, industry provides superb opportunities for both basic and clinical investigations.