Chem Major Contributes to Drug Development at GlaxoSmithKline
By Kylie Gray
Despite the widespread availability of pharmaceutical drugs, many of us know little about how they are created. Senior chemistry major Matthew Levine shares an inside view of the drug development process from his two co-ops at global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.
Levine was the first undergraduate to work with the team of scientists in GSK's synthetic biochemistry group. The team is interested in biocatalysis — the process by which natural substances like enzymes are used to boost chemical reactions. The enzymes are tested for specific reactions that may increase the effectiveness of a drug's active pharmaceutical ingredient.
"The benefit of using enzymes for reactions is that they are greener and don't really produce any waste, unlike chemical catalysts," Levine says. "Another benefit of enzymes is that they are very specific in what they do, which is important in drug design."
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The biocatalytic development process starts with reviewing scientific literature to see if specific enzymes are known to perform a reaction of interest.
"The bioinformatics team then uses DNA sequences to identify other enzymes that are in the same family," Levine says. "We order the DNA sequences from a commercial source and insert them into the bacteria E. coli to grow new enzymes."
Levine's first co-op focused on growing and testing the enzymes; using a mass spectrometer, he identified the enzymes that produced a desired reaction. The ones that did were characterized as a "hit" and would be put through five or six rounds of enzymatic evolution, creating new enzymes to be tested, while the rest were discarded.
"I was involved in building the initial panel, where we started with over 400 enzymes and had to narrow it down to 94. The final panel that we made is still being used all over the company," he says.
It was "a rush" when Levine learned that his work, in collaboration with his team and colleagues in the United Kingdom, would be prepared for publication in a scientific journal. By the time he returned to GSK for his second co-op, the paper was disseminated internally and accepted by the journal ChemCatChem.
"It was amazing to know that something I worked on would be shared with the wider scientific community," Levine says, noting that patent issues often prevent publication in industry. "Not every project you work on will be published, so you can't go into it with that mindset. I am just motivated to do the best job that I can do."
During his second co-op, Levine worked on a second panel of enzymes targeting a different reaction, this time with more autonomy. He discovered a novel application for the enzymes, which he presented to his colleagues at the company's science sharing day.
"The second co-op was more chemistry-intensive — not as much growing the enzymes, but with a lot more influence in ordering them. I started from the very beginning and helped identify enzymes from the literature," he says. "My team gave me the opportunity to learn, which was the main thing I wanted out of my co-ops."
Prior to his work at GSK, Levine completed his first co-op at Infineum, a joint venture of ExxonMobil and Shell. He developed an organic additive to reduce ash buildup in engines, learning organic chemistry and a host of lab techniques in the process.
His diverse experiences in industry have led him to see the value of an advanced chemistry degree; he now plans to pursue his PhD.
"At my co-ops, I saw that you have more career options with a PhD," he says. "I don't want to be a lab technician; I want to be the person coming up with the ideas and developing them into an invention."
Levine got a taste of academia in the fall, when he joined chemistry professor Reinhard Schweitzer-Stenner, PhD, in conducting research on hydrogelation — essentially, how a peptide interacts with a solvent to form a gel.
With his senior research and classes — along with his duties as President of Drexel's chapter of the American Chemical Society and as a violinist in the Drexel University Orchestra — it's a lot of responsibility. Fortunately, Levine has found a supportive community in the Department of Chemistry.
"Chemistry is a difficult major and you have to work hard to be successful," he says. "Because the chemistry department is small, I really got to know my classmates and professors. Everyone is extremely supportive of one another, and I would not be where I am today without their help."