Pharmacology & Pharmacy

Publication Analysis 2005-2011
by Kathleen Gransalke, Labtimes 05/2013

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Publications by European pharmacologists and pharmacists have gathered more than one million citations. The UK, Germany, Italy and France contributed the biggest share.

How times have changed. Just 100 years ago, one could, legally and for a few pennies, buy cocaine to raise spirits or cure dandruff in a neighbourhood drugstore. Even in the 1960s, drugs like LSD were popular among certain social groups and inspired one or the other artistic outpouring and scientific breakthrough (see Kary Mullis). Today, it’s a lot more difficult to get hold of psychotropic or any other drugs – unless one is a pharmacologist or a pharmacist.

The difference between the two occupational groups is, more or less, quickly explained. The pharmacologist studies how a drug affects a biological system, e.g. receptor binding, subsequent signalling cascade, or how the biological system influences the drug’s efficacy – drug absorption, distribution through the system, its metabolism and excretion. Pharmacists, on the other hand, are much closer to the patient than pharmacologists and are more concerned with practical issues of drug administration. One of their tasks is to find ways to deliver a drug to its correct target without too much loss of its effectiveness on the way.

Drugging the undruggable

Incidentally, finding new targets for drugs is one of the major challenges of the pharmaceutical industry as “most proteins that drive disease processes are actually undruggable”, so said Brent Stockwell from Columbia University in Scientific American. “Proteins that are considered undruggable don’t have large pockets or cavities inside them and instead are relatively flat on their surfaces. There’s no obvious site for a small molecule, a therapeutic candidate, to interact. (Only) fifteen percent of proteins are considered druggable,” he explained in 2011. Some of the more successful drug targets are the notorious G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) and certain kinases. But other proteins like transcription factors have, until now, been deemed too risky to explore (for pharma companies, at least). Recently, though, scientists from the National University of Singapore and colleagues were able to target one such transcription factor, the SALL4 protein, which is highly expressed in hepatocellular carcinoma, with a peptide inhibitor in mice. Blocking the transcription factor’s activity “inhibited tumor formation in xenograft models in vivo” (N Engl J Med, 368 (24): 2266-76).

Enough about drugs, let’s get to the point of this article – the analysis of pharmacological and pharmaceutical research publications in Europe between 2005 and 2011. As previously mentioned, the nations’ performance analysis was impossible to perform with all currently published journals available in the Web of Knowledge database, which we used for this analysis. Instead, we focussed on the so-called “expert journals”, compiled in the subject category Pharmacology & Pharmacy of the database. Here, more than 200 journals were listed; among them the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms and, interestingly, the journal Alcohol. We were bound to this limitation, however, only for the nation’s ranking, not for the most-cited authors’ or papers’ ranking.

On the whole, European researchers published almost 130,000 articles in these “expert journals”, most of them in European Neuropsychopharmacology (5%), Naunyn Schmiedebergs Archives of Pharmacology (3,5%) and Planta Medica (2,7%). Based on impact factors, the most highly relevant journals in Pharmacology & Pharmacy appear to be Nature Reviews Drugs Discovery (IF: 33.078), Pharmacological Reviews (IF: 22.345) and the Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology (IF: 21.543).

Over one million citations

The Fab Four of Pharmacology & Pharmacy are the UK, Germany, Italy and France. Each country produced more than 10,000 articles, gathering over 100,000 citations. Compared to the publication analysis of European pharma research from six years ago (LT 2-2007), encompassing the years 1999-2005, France pulled ahead of Italy, while the positions of the UK and Germany remained the same. The nations’ performance analysis on the other hand had a few surprises in store. Norway, for example, didn’t make the top 20 at all; the Nordic country only came in at spot 21. In contrast, Poland, Turkey and Greece did very well. Compared to the 2007 analysis, each country gained three spots, while Finland shed the most feathers, and crashed down five places (despite placing two researchers in the top 30 most-cited researchers; more about that later). Lastly, the nation’s article-citation ratios are all pretty similar. Thus, no matter where an article was written, the results are equally important.

Compared to their US colleagues, European pharmacologists and pharmacists, once again, do better when it comes to number of articles and citations but lose out in the citations per article category. Impressively, scientific outputs by both “research areas” garnered more than one million citations each. That the two Asian countries, Japan and China, are also very productive in pharmacological research comes as no surprise. For more than 5,000 years, they have been gathering pharmacological knowledge through what is now known as Traditional Chinese Medicine. More than 10,000 medicinals are still used in China today, among them crushed Ginkgo biloba seeds against asthma, rhinoceros horn as an antipyretic and bear bile, extracted from Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus), to dissolve gallstones.

Let’s now slowly approach our most-cited European pharmacologists and pharmacists. First, a few words about who was not included. Whenever the study subject of pharma researchers involved patients directly (clinical trials, treatment optimisation, guidelines for prescriptions), we decided to omit them. The same was true for all scientists interested in antibiotic resistance as they, in most cases, were rather microbiologists than pharmacologists.

This exclusion principle resulted in the ranking list on page 38. Interestingly, far more pharmacologists than pharmacists (25 vs 5) made the top 30. Disparate from their performance in the nations’ ranking, scientists working at Dutch institutes and universities represent, with seven researchers, the biggest group among the top 30; followed by Italy with five researchers, among them the top two; Germany fields four pharma scientists.

What are now the research subjects of our top pharmacologists and pharmacists? For pharmacologists, topics can be broadly divided into three categories: basic pharmacology, pharmacogenetics and disease-associated pharmacology. Among the basic pharmacologists, Vincenzo di Marzo, 2nd, has made a name for himself as the expert in cannabinoid research. In 2012, di Marzo was appointed to direct GW Pharmaceutical’s global pre-clinical research programme. The British pharma company specialises in cannabinoid medicines – one of their products, Sativex, is an oromucosal spray for the treatment of multiple sclerosis symptoms, cancer pain and neuropathic pain. Also committed to basic pharmacology are Geoffrey Burnstock, 9th, who studied purinoceptors and is now professor emeritus; as well as Graeme Milligan, 20th, Martin Lohse, 26th, and Rob Leurs, 29th, all interested in understanding the pharmacologically so important GPCRs better. Pharmacogeneticists like Matthias Schwab, 13th, and Mikko Niemi, 30th, want to get to the bottom of the question: Why do people respond differently to the same drug? To find out, they look for genetic variants in drug metabolising enzymes, transporters and nuclear receptors.

Surprise at the top

Then there are the pharmacologists, who have zeroed in on a certain disease. Moussa Youdim, 18th, and Matthias Staufenbiel, 23rd, both are after anti-Alzheimer drugs; Eric de Clercq, 3rd, Jos Beijnen, 6th, and Jan Balzarini, 11th, want to find a cure for HIV and cancer. Our top scientist, Claudiu Supuran, 1st, together with Andrea Scozzafava, 7th, meanwhile works on carbonic anhydrase inhibitors for the treatment of a range of conditions, including glaucoma, osteoporosis, gastric and duodenal ulcers and mountain sickness. Carbonic anhydrases help to convert CO2 and water into bicarbonate and protons and back again. This reaction is vital for pH regulation and the regulation of fluid balance.

Last but not least, the pharmacists. All of them are concerned with developing novel drug delivery systems, using different materials and strategies to release the pharmaceutical freight exactly where it is needed. Wim Hennink, 5th, plays around with self-exploding microcapsules and hydrogels; Patrick Couvreur, 15th, fancies polymer-coated nanoparticles to deliver effective anti-cancer drugs, while Stefaan de Smedt, 17th, intends to “deliver the goods” with ultrasound-triggered microbubbles.

For decades, pharmacologists and pharmacists have been working hard to find and develop compounds to treat even the deadliest of diseases. But a few challenges still remain. Will a European pharmacologist or pharmacist find a cure for Alzheimer’s or cancer?

View the Tables: Europe...and the World, Most Cited Authors...and Papers

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Last Changed: 17.09.2013