After just one cohort of students, the Clinical Pharmacology degree at St George’s University has been named the UK’s best pharmacology course. DDW’s Diana Spencer speaks to Co-Director Iain Greenwood to find out why a new course was needed and what makes this one unique.
St George’s, University of London’s Clinical Pharmacology course saw its first graduates this year and has already been named the third best pharmacy and pharmacology course in the UK by the Guardian and is currently the highest ranked pharmacology offering.
St George’s is the only specialist healthcare university in Britain and was the first to offer a graduate entry medical degree.
The new Clinical Pharmacology degree was launched in 2019 by Professors Emma Baker and Iain Greenwood and aims to take a holistic view of the development of drugs and create graduates that will stand out in the job market.
The curriculum and assessment structure is based on what the students will need to thrive in the drug development sector, with all scientific topics taught with the drug in mind first. This ranges from understanding disease processes and identifying possible drug targets, to organising testing, rolling out clinical trials, negotiating complex regulations and licensing and finally, treating patients.
Providing a broad view
The ideas for the course began to germinate in 2016, when co-directors Professors Baker and Greenwood were asked to create a new degree. Not wanting to duplicate existing programmes, they drew on their links with industry to find out what companies were looking for in graduate recruits.
“We asked, what do you really want from a graduate? Or what do you feel graduates lack?” Prof Greenwood remembers. “They felt that while graduates have got pretty good knowledge in many areas, what they tend to lack is transferable skills, like presentation skills, being comfortable with numbers, and working as a team. With this advice in mind, and with our combined experience, particularly Emma’s first-hand clinical pharmacology expertise, we set out building degree that gave the broadest view of drug development.”
To give the students a broad education, they built a faculty of lecturers from backgrounds in clinical roles, fundamental science and industry, including a pharmacist and a former clinical trials coordinator.
Starting with the drug
Due to this approach, the Clinical Pharmacology degree has various features that make it different to other courses that are currently available.
One novelty is that seven modules run at the same time. These are:
- Fundamentals of science: Understanding how the body works and what goes wrong in disease.
- Pharmacokinetics: How the body handles drugs.
- Pharmacodynamics: How drugs exert their effects on the body.
- Drug development and clinical trials: How drugs are discovered and developed as medicines.
- Drugs in healthcare: How information from clinical trials and drug development is used to guide the use of medicines for patients in clinical practice.
- Data and statistics: How to collect, manage, analyse, present and interpret research data relating to drugs.
- Skills portfolio: Developing clinical trials, laboratory, presentation and personal skills required to be successful in a work environment and demonstrate this to employers.
These modules are built around a structure that focuses on the drug itself as a starting point. “We decided when we were building the course that we didn’t want to do systems biology,” Prof Greenwood says. “Emma’s written a book called Top 100 Drugs, so we decided to use that. For example, semester two starts with anti-inflammatories, so in Fundamentals of Science students will learn about inflammation, and inflammation within the community for Drugs in Healthcare. The PK and Drug Discovery aspects may link with this or may not, but at the end of the week there’s a scenario that brings everything together.”
In another unusual feature of the course at St George’s, this type of teaching finishes halfway through year two and the students are assessed and go on to complete a lab-based or clinically-focused research project. Prof Greenwood explains that by doing these projects in year two rather than year three, the tutors can send students to the major conferences in the autumn to present their work. It also allows time to investigate PhD funding or for applying to programmes abroad.
Doing rather than seeing
With a focus on developing the skills needed in the industry, this project is written up into a very short scientific research paper and the students are required to present their work as they would do in a team meeting for a drug company or a research group. After that, the students go out into industry placements with companies like AstraZeneca, GSK, Takeda, Niche Pharmaceuticals, Richmond Pharmacology, and Lapcorp, to find out what working life is like.
The final year explores latest advances and ‘hot topics’, including new therapeutic approaches to disease and cutting-edge drug developments, such as biological drugs, nanotechnology and gene therapy. In line with their career aspirations, students choose several course modules to study to a more advanced level and undertake another written research project.
The faculty works closely with the students, and personal tutors provide one-to-one support in weekly meetings. Monday hubs focus on transferable skills to improve employability, like giving presentations, understanding the process of writing a research paper, performing cost-benefit analysis for drugs in the NHS, or even performing workshops with actors.
“We want to give students the broadest sense of the drug development industry, from drug discovery to post-marketing, regulation, vigilance and everything in between,” Prof Greenwood adds. “We’re providing our students with advanced knowledge, but also hands-on learning, doing rather than seeing. We also include clinical skills, which no other pharmacology course offers, along with an emphasis on presentation, teamwork and negotiation skills, and building professionalism.”
Breaking down barriers
The first cohort of students graduated in summer 2022, giving the course an impressive 93% satisfaction score in the National Student Survey.
While many of the graduates have gone on to further education, some have secured jobs as medical writers, in clinical trials or educational development. Three students were offered a year in industry during their six-week placement and will now complete their final year, while another student was employed by Danish company Airfinity since the start of the course and so has gone on to employment with them.
Prof Greenwood attributes their success to a focus on developing each student as an individual. “We focus very much on personal growth,” he explains. “The grades that the students came in with was not an indicator of what they achieved after year one or year two or year three. We continually seek feedback and adapt our approach accordingly. We’ve also found that socialising is very important to break down barriers between students, and between staff and students. We’re lucky that we’ve been able to avoid silos and cliques.”