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Mick Wells, College of Pharmacy

  Mickey Wells
Mick Wells, director of University of Iowa Pharmaceuticals, is an avid musician—in fact, he owns 14 guitars. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

What you are about to read involves drugs and rock ’n’ roll—although not the drugs oftentimes associated with rock music.

Mick Wells, director of University of Iowa Pharmaceuticals (UIP), leads the College of Pharmacy's drug development and manufacturing division. Established in August 2008, UIP represents the merger of the college's two well-established and long-running service units: the Division of Pharmaceutical Service and the Center for Advanced Drug Development

But there's more to Wells than drug formulations and stability analyses. He's a guitarist and an avid six-string collector who always finds time to bend some strings.

The Sheffield, Iowa, native came to the University one year ago from GlaxoSmithKline, the multinational, research-based pharmaceutical corporation, where he served as manager of strategic technologies at the company's facilities in Research Park Triangle, N.C. His return was a homecoming of sorts—Wells earned both a bachelor's degree (1987) and a doctorate in pharmaceutics (1990) from the UI College of Pharmacy.

Wells sat down with fyi to talk about UI Pharmaceuticals, his favorite guitars, and being a diehard fan of Van Halen.

What kind of services does UI Pharmaceuticals provide?

The bulk of our business is done for external clients—small to large-sized companies. Basically, we're involved in developing drug formulations and then manufacturing drug products for our clients. We have the most experienced university-based drug manufacturing facilities registered with the Food and Drug Administration. Much of our work involves mass-producing medications into dosage forms for use in clinical studies in humans, but we do small-scale projects as well.

Are these new medications?

Sometimes. Many are new molecular entities that are not yet commercially available; these are chemical entities that are being studied. On the other hand, sometimes we're involved in developing or producing existing drugs in a new formulation, or older drugs in their original formulation.

Typically, the drug compounds are discovered elsewhere, which is the research and discovery side of things. The client has discovered a molecule and has done preclinical testing. When they start getting closer toward wanting to test the drug in human trials, they approach us about doing stability analysis on the drug substance, and then doing development and stability testing on the drug product formulation.

We serve between 40 to 70 clients per year, from major pharmaceutical companies to "virtual" firms—those that have no facilities other than offices. In other words, people who have a molecule and an idea for a new drug, and who want to develop this drug for clinical trials to prove it's safe and to prove it works.

What was behind the name change to UI Pharmaceuticals?

The new name reflects the merger of Pharmaceutical Service and the Center for Advanced Drug Development. Both have been around for a while—CADD has been here since the 1990s, and Pharm Service since the 1970s. There was even a precursor to Pharm Service that goes back to the 1930s, I believe. Both units have worked closely together for years, so it made sense to bring them together to better build on those collaborations and make it easier for clients to know who we are and what we do.

You came to the UI from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. How did that experience shape your career?

Working at a major pharmaceutical company allowed me to work on a lot of projects that actually made it onto the market. In a sense, the work we do here at UIP is exactly the type of work I did back at Glaxo, but we're doing it for variety of companies instead of one large one.

While at Glaxo, you worked with the drug Wellbutrin, a well-known antidepressant that also has been prescribed as a smoking cessation aid. What was your role?


A few of my favorite things ...

Food: Godfather's pizza

Book: Pharmaceutical Technology by Eugene L. Parrott

Music: Van Halen, Doyle Dykes, Tommy Emmanuel, Paco de Lucia

Hobby: Guitar


Well, I was not involved in the inception stage of that product, more on the middle to back-end. It had been developed and was on the market, but one particular formulation—Wellbutrin SR 100-milligram tablets—had some stability problems. That's where I was brought in with others in my group to spearhead the reformulation efforts. Later, I played a key role in the formulation of Wellbutrin SR 200-milligram tablets.

It was great experience for me. Everyone wants to be involved in the development of a drug that makes it to market, because many times the drug won't see the light of day. I was lucky in that several of the projects I worked on at Glaxo were on the back-end with products already commercially viable or more likely to make it to market.

Now, working with smaller-sized companies with molecules that they are trying to get to Phase I trials, it's exciting to serve clients who are coming to us for our expertise and abilities. They're excited about their molecule; they're borrowing money from venture capitalists; and we're helping them with a product that may make it to the clinic. It's the free-enterprise system at work, the American dream. Some of these companies won't make it, of course, but some will, and it's rewarding to be part of that.

What led you into this field?

Well, there was no plan, I can tell you that (laughs). I wanted to be a guitarist. Initially, I was planning to go to school (at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City) for two years to become a medical technologist. I had no plans beyond those first two years. But my chemistry courses went very well, and I was always thinking of something health care–related. So I chose pharmacy, and that went well. Then I moved toward a PhD in pharmaceutics and just kept moving along. But there was no master plan, really. I've been fortunate.

Do you still play guitar?

Oh yes. In high school I worked in a grocery store and played in a bar band on weekends. My parents let me do that, and I thought it was the coolest thing. But some of the places we played—these places were dumps.

What type of music?

I started out playing a lot of Van Halen. I like all sorts of styles when it comes to guitar, and all sorts of music, but Eddie Van Halen is my pinnacle. I was in the front row in 2004 when they started their North American tour in Greensboro, N.C., and I was right in front of Eddie. In '07 I was in Greensboro again for the Van Halen tour, this time with original singer David Lee Roth. Fifth row. Good show.

But I like a lot of guitarists. I've seen the flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. I've seen Tommy Emmanuel and Doyle Dykes, both finger-style guitarists. In fact, I just saw Dykes play in Cedar Falls at a Taylor Guitar clinic at a music store. He was incredible. I'll even watch country and western guitar players today. If you had told me as a teenager that I would like that style of music…

How many guitars do you own?

Fourteen. I have a lot of Taylor acoustic guitars. I also have a Robin Trower Stratocaster, and a couple of Ernie Ball Music Man Axis guitars. I also have a Rick Nielsen signature model Taylor—it's a jumbo acoustic, green with checkerboard pattern exploding up the neck. This is inlaid with black oyster pearl and mother of pearl to look three-dimensional on the neck, like it's exploding. They issued this guitar in 2003, and only made about 30. I never thought I'd buy a green acoustic guitar.

But I play them all. I would love to play more of the finger-style, a la Chet Atkins, but I'm not there yet (laughs). If I just had a little more time…

by David Pedersen

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