Gwydion Churchill: food's loss is science's gain

11 December 2012

11 Dec 2012

What is your current role?
I’m a process chemist in pharmaceutical development at AstraZeneca, designing and supporting processes to make active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) for use in clinical trials.  This ranges from a few hundred grams of material for a toxicological study, to a multi-tonne delivery for a large phase III trial, which may take six months to manufacture. The synthesis of an API may be exceedingly complex, with potentially several hundred operations and dozens of different starting materials and reagents required to arrive at the desired compound. Throughout this process we have to address numerous criteria such as safety, quality control, environmental impact and economics. 

What is innovative about your most recent research project?
There are so many potential avenues in which to be innovative in industry because there are so many criteria by which to judge, rather than focussing on a new reaction or making a new natural product. I recently developed a process which generated water as a by-product which had to be removed from the system to give the optimal result.  In collaboration with a chemical engineer we designed a method whereby the reaction solvent could be distilled from the reaction mixture and passed through a drying agent before returning to the vessel. It’s a simple concept but quite unusual and proved to be the difference between a poor process and an excellent one.

What have been your proudest achievements so far?
Having your work published by peer review is the ultimate accolade for a scientist, but it’s also difficult to beat seeing a process you designed in a lab being successfully transferred to a manufacturing plant (where the consequences of it going wrong may be very expensive!).  When I first joined AstraZeneca I was assigned to a project which had experienced difficulties delivering material for initial clinical investigations.  As one of a team of chemists we completely redesigned the processes to the API which gave a more than ten-fold improvement in yield and successfully transferred it to the manufacturing plant. I was able to write a paper on the key reaction and also presented our work at an international conference. I’ve also been privileged to supervise a number of undergraduate and postgraduate students, both in academia and industry, and to play a small part in their career development and see their successes is very gratifying.

What is the next milestone in your career?
So far I’ve largely worked in early development.  I’m now involved in a late stage project, where the work required for regulatory submission and approval is complex and extremely detailed. There is a lot for me to learn along the way and I think I will benefit enormously from successfully negotiating these challenges, which I hope will culminate in a new product for patients.

If you hadn’t pursued a career in science, what would you be doing now?
I’d like to think something inherently creative rather than analytical or financial! I absolutely love cooking but with a young family I’m not sure I could stand the typical working hours of a chef.  Perhaps I’d be on a smallholding somewhere in North Wales making cheese…

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