Ask the majority of Britons what Alderley Edge means to them and they will say big houses, big cars, Premiership footballers and television soap actors, yet the leafy Cheshire countryside south of Manchester has other, arguably more impressive, more important stars to boast about. Entrepreneurs, engineers and above all scientists.
Gary Noonan is one. Based at the huge AstraZeneca campus at Alderley Park, not far from Macclesfield on one side, Alderley Edge on another and Jodrell Bank, the huge radio observatory, on a third, the medicinal chemist works for RedX Pharma.
Most of his work revolves around the designing and making of molecules. “There are lots of different factors in the design process. Can we actually make it? Is it toxic to the liver? And any new drug has to be clean of cardiac toxicity because, well, you don’t want a drug that kills infections but also people.”
Then you have to make sure the molecule is soluble in water to get into the bloodstream but fatty enough to get across biological membranes. “It’s a tightrope.”
It is also exciting, the kind of work that is drawing scientists to Alderley Park like a magnet. Although AstraZeneca is taking much of its pharmaceuticals operation to a new facility in Cambridge, “a lot of small companies are starting to come to the site and that list is just getting bigger. We’re becoming a real hub of science start-ups.”
The 31-year-old earned a primary degree in chemistry at the University of Cork before completing a PhD in organic chemistry at St Andrews. He worked at AstraZeneca for three years before nipping across the corridor to RedX, founded five years ago to develop drugs to treat cancer and infectious diseases. “Organic chemistry seemed far more coherent than any other aspects of chemistry to me,” he says. “It had an underlying logic that made sense.
“In the last 150 years we have developed a broad range of reactions we can use to put building blocks together. [It’s like] we can make a variety of Lego bricks and we know what types of reliable reactions we can use to stick those bricks together.”
One advantage of pursuing a career in the private sector over academic research is that the laboratories are better served. “We have everything we need here to do our job properly. In an academic laboratory, you can spend hours looking for glassware. There’s a real business approach here.”
Lack of variety isn’t an issue in the job. “I can come in the morning and set up some chemical reactions to build drug molecules, spend some time looking at crystal structures of our compounds bound to the target, then spend the end of the day trying to figure out why the chemical synthesis hasn’t gone as expected and how to resolve the problem.”
The real cost in drug discovery isn’t in the creation of the drug, it’s in the research and the costs involved in testing: “The clinical trials can cost millions. From drug discovery to market is roughly £1 billion.”
However, RedX’s approach, he says, is fairly lean: “We have been quick so far by imposing very demanding deadlines on ourselves. As we are in pre-clinical drug discovery, we don’t have to answer to anyone yet.”
Four of its 13 programmes have reached the pre-clinical proof-of-concept stage. The company also works with AstraZeneca on cancer treatment contracts.
It’s an exciting place to be, Dr Noonan says. “If we are successful in progressing even one of our programmes to the point of being viable medicines, the societal and economic reward would be significant.”