Josep Mª Suñé «Many of the prescription drugs people take have been formulated by us»
With a background in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Josep Maria Suñé is the director of the Drug Development Service (SDM), a research group of the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Barcelona. The SDM works on the development of drugs since 1996, and has secured about twenty patents for the companies that have entrusted it with the development of their products.
What does the Drug Development Service do?
At the SDM we work in drug research and development. Prescription drugs include any preparation that is ready to be administered to people: tablets, capsules, syrups, creams, and injectable solutions. Using the active molecule, we find a formula to develop a drug that can be given to people in an exact dosage, and in a safe, effective, working, stable, and quality format. This is what the SDM does.
How does the SDM collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry?
On the one hand, we carry out scholarly research and, on the other, we conduct research for pharmaceutical, cosmetics, veterinary, healthcare, phytotherapy, and food industries, among others. All these laboratories and companies entrust us with a specific project, and we research and develop the most appropriate formulation according to their needs. Once it is done, the company registers and markets the product. Many of the prescription drugs people take have been formulated by us. This is the most rewarding thing: to go to a pharmacy or hospital and see that a drug they are prescribing was formulated by us at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Barcelona.
The SDM has been working on drug development since 1996
I left the private sector to work at the university in 1987, and from then onwards we started developing projects for companies through the FBG. The facilities of the pilot plant where we worked really made a difference, because they made it possible to combine teaching, university research, and technology transfer. We opened this pilot plant in September 1996, when we became the Drug Development Service. We stopped being a group of professors who developed research projects and services for companies on their own and turned into a leading research group in technology and knowledge transfer. Since then we’ve been working non-stop. In 2000 we joined the TECNIO network of the Generalitat de Catalunya and we have remained a member ever since, a situation we hope to maintain in the future.
How has drug development changed since 1996?
We are increasingly being asked for more sophisticated formulations, drugs that target a particular tissue or organ with the development of a more precise therapeutic action. In this sense, we already started, about seven or eight years ago, to work on a research line focused on nanotechnology that aims to try to direct the drug to the target cell or target tissue so that it will perform its action where really necessary. Thus, we are trying to achieve “the magic bullet”, as Paul Ehrlich—the 1908 Nobel Prize in Medicine—called the drug that would manage to go where it should act and cure disease without side effects or toxicity.
In the future, there will still be systemic drugs, which are administered into the circulatory system so that the entire body is affected, but there will also be some that will go to the target cell, to the specific place where they must act. Our current research work is focused on cancer treatment, on how to attack cancer cells while leaving the others alone.
What services does the university offer to companies?
Universities have a very broad and extensive expertise that industry can never have. Universities are multidisciplinary; we have everything, and this fact makes it possible for private companies to come looking for what they really need. Our multidisciplinarity means that we can offer a very comprehensive, global, and at the same time very specialized work. Without a doubt, at the university we have the best specialists in everything, and if you put together the best you have a combination with a potential that cannot be found elsewhere. This is what we offer, and what we have to try to do is to make companies realise that they can find all this at the university. Many times companies don’t know about this and they knock their heads against a brick wall trying to find someone to meet their needs. They go around the world looking when they have it right next door. I always say that at the University of Barcelona we have the best researchers in the world, but the business sector must discover it and our institution must also promote it.
Researchers teach, carry out their own research, engage in academic management, and also transfer technology, which is very important for the university because it generates overheads. The university should take advantage of this to have resources, but it should also try to favour the groups involved in technology transfer, for this would increase our resources and that would benefit the entire university structure.
Should the university take heed of some aspect of the private sector?
That is what we always say: public universities are trapped in a very cumbersome bureaucratic system that is not present in the private sector. Public universities should implement tools that help reduce bureaucracy and make them much more agile when it comes to reacting to such simple things as a researcher having a broken machine that has to be repaired overnight. It is necessary to put in place a system that allows everything in the university to be more agile, faster, and more in tune with today’s world. This is what we should learn from the private sector, but not much more. Whereas companies are private, we are public universities, and we must continue to be public universities in order to be always at the service of society; we cannot privatize.
How important is knowledge transfer?
All the knowledge that we are generating through our research must be extrapolable to the social reality we are living in. We don’t get anything out of doing very interesting research if it stays inside the university. It is essential to be able to transfer it so that it benefits the population, and the way to put it at the service of citizens is to work with the business sector. Things cannot remain within our walls, they must come out because they are always a step forward for society, and this helps to consolidate a higher living standard for people.
More about Josep Maria Suñé
The best invention in history:
They say it was the wheel, right?
Guns, these have always been the worst invention. And if they’re mass destruction weapons, that’s even worse.
A breakthrough you’d like to see before you die:
Finding the drug or drugs that will completely cure all cancerous processes.
The FBG is…
… a way to transfer technology to the private sector and, ultimately, to society. This instrument facilitates the necessary connections to transfer this knowledge in an agile and fast way.