“Knowledge learned at BME is valued in international drug development as well”

BME VBK and Portuguese company, Hovione start a doctoral programme together.

“The selection of a Hungarian research team of international standard by a foreign pharmaceutical company to address its special development problems demonstrates BME’s competence and high quality,” stressed László Poppe, professor of the Department of Organic Chemistry and Technology at BME’s Faculty of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology (VBK) and coordinator of the joint doctoral programme of Hovione pharmaceutical company and BME’s George Oláh Doctoral School, speaking about the collaboration.

Hovione pharmaceutical company was founded in Portugal in 1959 by three Hungarian emigrants: Miklós Horthy jr., IvánVillax chemical engineer and AndrásÓnódi. Later, IvánVillax and his family became the sole owners of the company. (The company name is an acronym formed from the names of the three families.) Today, it is one of the largest and most successful family businesses in Portugal.

Iván Villax (1925-2003) was a student at BME and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university after 1990. His widow, Diane Villax launched a scholarship programme 10 years ago to support the students of BME’s Faculty of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology. The parties signed a formal cooperation agreement allowing two students every year to go on a study tour to Lisbon and obtain professional experience with all costs paid by the company. Application for the IvánVillax scholarship programmes providing six-month internships is open every year. The joint PhD programme starts a new chapter in the partnership.

Although Diane Villax is not from Hungary, she has supported other causes related to Hungary before including the commendable celebration of the events of 1956 held in 2016. For her efforts to promote the friendly relations between Hungary and Portugal, she received the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic, Officer’s Cross at the Hungarian embassy in Lisbon this January.

Research in the pharmaceutical industry typically focuses on two areas: one of which is aimed at discovering and developing new drugs, which is extremely costly, requiring an investment of up to billions of dollars and a time frame of 10 years. To tackle these financial issues, large pharmaceutical companies usually partner with each other to provide for the required funding for a brand new drug.

The other activity is the development of the so-called generic, i.e. off-patent drugs where the companies are competing to deliver the best quality at a cheaper price. “Novel and efficient production is currently an important research field across the world,” emphasised László Poppe adding that the doctoral scholarship is also related to this: the goal is to find the simplest manufacturing method to date for one of Hovione’s APIs using enzymes and biocatalytic systems.

“We are trying to reduce an eight-step synthesis to three steps,” explained the expert saying that the research essentially relies on enzymatic processes allowing very selective reactions.

The details of the joint doctoral programme with Hovione are now being developed by the faculty with the experiences gained to be incorporated in the preparation of the participants in future scholarship schemes. “The intentions of the pharmaceutical company were in total harmony with our ambitions to train professionals who also have industrial experience,” the professor said. “Hovione has been receiving students from Hungary for nearly 10 years as interns or as part of their diploma work but the doctoral programme is larger with a time span of 3 or 4 years. The first participant in the doctoral scholarship programme will arrive in Lisbon with a strong professional background obtained at BME,” László Poppe said introducing Ágnes Lakó, PhD student at BME’s George Oláh Doctoral School.

“I started my doctoral programme in September but I will conduct the majority of my research in the laboratory in Portugal”, Ms. Lakó told bme.hu. As she will not be able to meet some of the requirements of the doctoral school in Portugal, she has been carrying out academic activities since September, working as a demonstrator in the organic chemistry preparative laboratory, supporting a BSc student as consultant and studying some subjects.

Two-third of her training is planned to be spent abroad and during her time in Portugal, she would like to learn the language of the country located on the Iberian peninsula as well as completing her research programme. “Some people who have worked as interns in Portugal before told me that they could communicate in English at the company but I still want to learn Portuguese. Hovione supports my ambition so they are going to pay for a teacher for me,” said Ágnes Lakó adding that “what is extremely motivating for me in pharmaceutical research is that we do not work “without purpose” but address issues that may have direct industrial benefits”.

Photo: János Philip