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Alzheimer's drug test keeps minds focused

A pharmaceutical company has devised a bold experiment to turn students on to science

A pharmaceutical company has devised a bold experiment to turn students on to science

Where do you start when looking for a cure for Alzheimer's? Where should the receptors be expressed? How do you ensure optimisation? What other factors need to be considered? For Higher and Advanced Higher pupils attending a Schering-Plough Science Challenge, these are some of the questions each team must answer.

The one-day challenge is based on a four-day course run internally for drug discovery scientists with Schering-Plough. The challenge is to find a cure for Alzheimer's, and goes through the different stages - from target identification and validation, through to screening and optimisation and, finally, full development and marketing.

The pharmaceutical company came up with the idea in 2004 as a way of becoming more involved with schools. It adapted the internal course, piloted it on colleagues from a non-scientific background as well as on some former sixth-year pupils, and then ran it for the first time at Claremont High in South Lanarkshire in 2006. Since then it has run them on a number of occasions, most recently in Edinburgh at Forrester High.

Mark Craighead, team leader of molecular pharmacology at Schering-Plough, says: "For each challenge there are usually eight teams of four or five from surrounding schools. We have run them in council offices, and occasionally in school assembly halls. Usually there are four of us, and we each choose two teams which we move between and help if necessary."

A PowerPoint presentation is broken up with various challenges throughout the day, as students go through the different stages required to develop a drug, learning about how the body deals with them, as well as screening processes and how compounds are selected.

The challenges consist largely of multiple-choice questions linked to the content of the presentation. Plenty of thought and analysis are involved but all the challenges are achievable.

"The students are always very enthusiastic, and we want all the teams to do well," says Dr Craighead. "But sometimes they amaze us. We provide them with a glossary to help them with terms, and keep a running score. But we don't reveal the scores until the end."

Different scenarios are run through, as different compounds are tested. Then the pupils move on to the final stage of the challenge - costing the drug, naming it and advertising it. They learn how long it takes to develop a drug (12 years) and how the vast majority of clinical trials fail. The challenge finishes with each team presenting a three- to five- minute "advert" selling the newly-discovered drug. Scores are totalled up and prizes awarded.

The aim is to give information to students about the variety of disciplines involved in the drug discovery process. It teaches them about the length of time and resources required to develop a successful drug, and introduces them to the concept of teamwork within the confines of the project.

Helen Salt is business engagement co-ordinator in South Lanarkshire and has been instrumental in bringing it to local schools on a number of occasions. "We have had good feedback from teachers and pupils," she says. "Teachers like it as it shows the relevance of science, and inspires links with the world of work. The youngsters like working with real scientists."

The feedback received from pupils from all areas has been largely positive. After one session, 36 out of 45 respondents reported that they were going on to study science at university, with three still unsure; 32 plan a career in industry, with five unsure.

So does Schering-Plough feel the challenge prepares students for a career in industry? Dr Craighead believes that, in many ways, it does: "We try and give them an idea of how the pharmaceutical industry operates and some insight into the activities involved in the drug discovery process."

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