Big Pharma Goes Back to School

Aug 29, 2007
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Boosting our nation's woeful science IQ is the challenge Bristol-Myers Squibb has set for itself with RxeSEARCH, an 11-lesson high-school course that engages students in the real-world application of science for new and better medicines. This R&D 101 covers everything from the social impact of disease to the marketing of drugs, with emphasis on the screening and targeting of molecules to find the "magic bullet." Classroom activities range across experimenting in the lab, designing clinical trials, debating medical ethics, and even playing a board game about the life cycle of a drug, where a roll of the dice can mean the difference between go and no-go--and millions of dollars. Different approaches to problem-solving and decision-making are explored as the drug-development process unfolds.

RxeSEARCH was the brainchild of BMS's chief communications officer, Robert Zito, according to Becky Taylor, senior director of corporate and business communications, who says that Zito was a big booster of a similar game to teach kids about investing money while he was at the New York Stock Exchange. "When he came to BMS, he developed a similar initiative as an effective, entertaining way to teach the next generation about science as it is applied to the research and development of medicine."

The New Jersey commissioner of education, Lucille Davy, was quick to sign on to the project, lauding it as a prime example of both applied and integrated instruction, combining science with math, English, history, and other subjects. The National Science Resources Center (NSRC), an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, was enlisted to develop the curriculum with multidisciplinary input from experts.

Officials shared the drug giant's vision of the program as a means to increase American students' scientific proficiency, which has trailed that of most of the rest of developed world for two decades. One of NSRC's first forays into secondary education, it also aims to generate enthusiasm for the high-stakes practice of drugmaking--and for Big Pharma as a career choice.

RxeSEARCH was pilot-tested in high schools in New York City and across the Pharma Belt of New Jersey. Fully three-quarters of the top-15 global drug firms are headquartered in the Garden State, and they employ more than 65,000 residents and contribute more than $20 billion to the state economy. Following two years of fine-tuning and a summer training institute for 59 local teachers, RxeSEARCH is ready for a local rollout this semester under the aegis of PhRMA and the Museum of Contemporary Science, in Trenton. A BMS-funded, All Web Café?designed Web site?which would allow teachers to download the 11-lesson curriculum, board-game teaching points, and additional materials--is also in the works.

PhRMA's role involves garnering industry support for the program, says Wes Metheny, senior vice president of Alliances, Affordability, and Access. So far, J&J, Schering-Plough, Wyeth, and GSK have joined BMS as sponsors, with high schools in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Iowa on the RxeSEARCH roster. Financial initiatives in local schools are but one of pharma?s many common philanthropic endeavors, but RxeSEARCH is unique in its focus and ambitions. Commissioner Davy has praised it as a model program. As PhRMA shakes its can for more industry coins to unroll RxeSEARCH nationwide, the program?s growing prominence may attract the scrutiny of industry foes in Congress.

But when asked about the prospects of, say, Sen. Charles Grassley crying foul at drug industry influence in his state's public education, Metheny sounded confident. "I don't see any way of twisting this program around as anything other than what it is--an attempt to excite students about the enormous potential of science to benefit society and to help regain our nation's competitiveness," he said. "As students learn the facts about developing medicine, they can decide for themselves if this expensive and cherished enterprise needs to be supported."

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