Professor who found a niche in drugs industry; Sophie Freeman meets Professor MIKE RUBENSTEIN, chief executive of Quay Pharmaceuticals.
MERSEYSIDE has gained something of a reputation as a centre of excellence for the biotechnology industry. As far back as 1945, when the Distillers' plant at Speke was one of the first two factories in Europe to produce penicillin, to the present day with the building of the National Biomanufacturing Centre, the region has had a well-established presence in the field.
World-class pharmaceutical companies such as Chiron, Eli Lilly and Medimmune produce licensed products for the global market from plants on the banks of the Mersey.
Three years ago, after 27 years in academia, Professor Mike Rubenstein decided to make his own contribution to the region's burgeoning industry by launching his research and development firm in Bromborough, Wirral.
It was the desire to convert the theoretical knowledge he had built up over three decades into his own profitable business that made him take the plunge.
Quay Pharmaceuticals has now carved itself a niche in the industry by formulating oral variations of drugs which would otherwise need to be injected or administered in another, more intrusive way.
"There are very few companies specialising in this area," he says.
The research and development company carries out contract work for other biotech firms in the UK and overseas.
"Most of our work is concerned with early stage development-pre-clinical work. If a new molecule is thought to be active tomorrow, it can take over a decade for it to actually be brought to the market. There is a long period of development required and we're concerned with formulating the drug into an actual medicine.
"Three types of companies use our services. Firstly, there are the smaller biotech companies who are bringing out innovative drug products and don't have the expertise to develop them through the clinical trials.
"Then there are the virtual companies, those which don't have any facilities of their own and therefore outsource to companies like ourselves.
"And then there are what I call the big pharma companies, the multinationals, who wish to use our resources and expertise toenhance their own." He's keen to stress that no animals are used in his research, something he feels very strongly about.
"We don't do any experiments on animals, all our work is laboratory-based.
"By law, our clients have to carry out animal work but it needs to be done in a humane way and without cruelty and I think it can be done that way," he said.
A substantial part of Quay Pharma's work involves treatments for cancers, Alzheimers disease, rheumatism and diabetes.
The company also focuses on "lifestyle drugs" that enhance, for example, sexual performance.
"Whereas previously it would be all about treating disease, now it's not all life and death," smiles Rubenstein.
"Biotech is booming," he adds. "In the next five to 10 years you'll see huge changes."
Completion of the Human Genome Project has led to the identification of more than 120,000 genes and up to 10,000 new drug targets.
The value of the global pharmaceutical market grew from an estimated $70bn in 1981 to an estimated $323bn in 2000, with factors including an ageing population, demand for lifestyle drugs such as Viagra and innovative marketing techniques fuelling the demand by patients and customers.
"There have been huge developments in the search to find new drugs," says Rubenstein, "and the completion of the genome project a few years ago has led to a stampede to find new drugs for illnesses and conditions that were untreatable, such as some types of cancer, or not met by current drug compounds, such as diabetes."
In the 35 years that he has been involved in drugs research, things have moved a long way in terms of regulation as well, says Rubenstein.
"We used to test a lot of the drugs on ourselves. It's horrifying to think about that now and you definitely couldn't do that these days," he laughs.
"But development was much easier in the early 1970s. You could get a drug on the market in half the time it takes now."
Average developmentto-market time now is 12 years, says Rubenstein, who was head of the School of Pharmacy and Chemistry at Liverpool John Moores University for seven-and-a-half years He joined the institution in 1973 working his way up from lecturer to reader to professor, after completing a degree and PhD at London University.
Growing up in Childwall, south Liverpool, he developed a keen interest in science while studying at West Derby Technical College.
He pursued A-levels in the discipline before heading to thebig lights of the capital, after which he secured his first job with drugs giant AstraZeneca back in Cheshire.
He also worked at GlaxoSmithkline before joining John Moores.
Now Quay, which currently shares a site with Chester Medical, is rapidly outgrowing its premises.
Rubenstein is patiently waitingfor the go-ahead from the Northwest Development Agency to move into a purpose-built laboratory at Speke, right next to the new National Biomanufacturing Centre.
"We hope to find out by the end of August but it's taken us two years to get to this stage," he says.
"It's exciting but also frustrating.
"We have about 15 scientists at the moment, but once we move to Speke our intention is to grow to 80 plus, and we are particularly keen on recruiting local graduates.
"The move will allow us to compete for more contracts. Our problem is that clients see us as very small.
"But once we move to a purpose-built site, that will give us critical mass, and we hope to attract a lot of overseas clients in particular
Age: 60 Lives: Calderstones, south LiverpoolFamily: Wife, twogrown-up children, two grand-children and one on the way.
Degree: BSc in Pharmacy; PhD in Pharmacy, both from London University Best advice received Don't wait until an opportunity falls into your lap, but make things happen by your own endeavours Biggest achievement: Being rigorously externally assessed and recommended for a professorship in 1987Biggest regret: That Ididn't start Quay Pharma 15 years ago. It has been a real challenge and very fulfilling Unfulfilled ambition: Having lots and lots of grandchildren.
Hobbies: Travel - I have just got back from Verona - and going to David Lloyd gym at Speke
Professor Mike Rubenstein regrets not having set up his company 15 years ago