gists remain a key part of the equation for the industry, not just skilled computational biologists.
Dr. Reyes said the future is best considered by asking the question: What if we could design a molecule to uniquely fit the active side of a membrane and not cross-react with related enzymes? This requires greater multidisciplinary collaboration between chemists and biologists. Using tools in existence, it should be possible in the future to predict a drug’s pharmacology in humans.
Beyond 2000, in silico drug discoveries will be key for the pharmaceutical industry. Using silicon-based information technologies, researchers will be able to do things such as study the structure of proteins faster than ever before. Hypotheses about proteins will be testable and verifiable using informatics. It will be important, however, for researchers to be able to produce the protein in adequate quantities to obtain the crystal and conduct studies. Highly trained biologists, Dr. Reyes reiterated, will be very important. That said, Dr. Reyes added that at Schering-Plough, the bioinformatics group has generated 10 years worth of data for biologists. In other words, Schering-Plough could shut down it bioinformatics operations today and keep its biologists busy for the next 10 years.
A questioner said that a plausible explanation for the shortfall in supply of trained individuals in bioinformatics is that the field is very new. The questioner asked Dr. Stephan how the newness of the field factored into her analysis. Dr. Stephan responded that, even though the field was new, many people contacted in the course of her research said that they had found it difficult to start computational biology programs within their academic institutions. Thus, even with very strong demand in industry, structural difficulties in universities have inhibited responses from academia. In fact, some people she interviewed left universities out of frustration when starting a bioinformatics program was impossible.
A questioner recalled a meeting that he attended at which large companies such as Merck and IBM said that for bioinformatics jobs, the companies do not need people that have graduated from formal degree programs, but rather people with certain skills. Dr. Stephan agreed that developing people with proper skills was the right goal, more so than necessarily graduating more people from formal programs. She added that students must be made aware of job opportunities in the field; this is not done adequately now, so students who may be interested and ideally suited for bioinformatics remain unaware of the field. That is why, Dr. Stephan said, more outreach must be done.
Dr. Kathy Behrens commented on Dr. Stephan’s observation that faculty members in the life sciences do not know where students are employed upon graduation; she suggested that granting agencies require universities to establish a tracking system as a condition for the grant. Dr. Stephan agreed that this would be useful, and she added that institutions should be required to track students after post-doctorate employment.