Portrait of Pharm Chem Alumni Luke Spooner

Mentorship and ongoing support from faculty at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy have been key to Luke Spooner, a graduate of the U of T’s Pharmaceutical Chemistry program in 2015, to develop a career in drug policy and in the launch of an important new biosimilars initiative in the Northwest Territories.

“If you don’t have that support, it’s really hard to continue to move ideas forward or be innovative,” says Spooner, a senior project manager in the Department of Health and Social Services in the Northwest Territories. “Mentorship and support can help you figure out what you need to do to move forward or give you the confidence to keep trying.”

As an undergraduate student at U of T, Spooner was interested in the pharmaceutical chemistry, but he also had a growing interest in health economics, which was not offered as part of his program. But with support from Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, particularly Professor Rob Macgregor, who was the Pharmaceutical Chemistry program director at the time, he was able to enroll in relevant graduate-level courses as electives.

Macgregor says that encouraging a variety of interests is important for students who are trying to figure out their future paths.

“I believe that a university degree should focus on breadth of learning, which helps the student better understand and appreciate how they and their career fit into the world,” says Macgregor. “Students often get lost in the weeds of exams and grades, and I try to help them understand that what they know is part of a very broad and deep intellectual landscape. I emphasize that their university program is just the very beginning of their learning and whatever route they take to explore that landscape will bring unexpected and deeply satisfying intellectual riches.”

This support from Macgregor gave Spooner more confidence to develop his different academic interests outside of the program requirements. After taking the health economics course, he completed a fourth-year health economics research project with Jeffrey Hoch, Professor – Status, which allowed him to grow his research skills in this area, and served as president of the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Student Union in his final year of the program.

Spooner also worked as a summer student at the Ontario Drug Policy and Research Network (ODPRN) with Tara Gomes, Assistant Professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, and principal investigator of the ODPRN. He says that, while he didn’t have any experience in pharmaceutical policy or writing when he started the role, Gomes gave him opportunities to do work that gave him valuable experience in pharmaceutical policy and writing that he uses in his career today.

“The faculty was supportive of fostering different interests,” says Spooner. “The help and support I received from faculty members may have seemed like a small thing to them, but it had a big impact on me as a student. If I hadn’t felt supported by the faculty to take these courses, I may not have had developed my interest in the field.”

U of T drug policy researchers contributed to planning of biosimilars initiative in Northern Canada

After completing his undergraduate degree, Spooner earned an MSc in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of British Columbia, graduating in 2017. He then moved to Yellowknife and worked as a research coordinator with the Government of the Northwest Territories. Shortly after, he transferred to a role as a senior project manager in the Department of Health and Social Services, where he supports a variety of drug-related projects using knowledge he gained in his U of T education.

“The Pharmaceutical Chemistry program gives a solid basis in understanding drug manufacturing, which is important to understand rules and regulations around drug products and processes for determining bioequivalence,” says Spooner. “Understanding the different drug classes and how drugs work is important in supporting drug plan decisions.”

For more than two years, Spooner has been supporting the planning and development of an initiative that the government just launched, which will switch patients from original biologic medication to less expensive, highly similar versions known as biosimilars. Only four other Canadian provinces have launched similar initiatives.

The Government of the Northwest Territories reported that in fiscal year 2020-2021 spending on biologic drugs increased by 17.6 per cent, and those costs are increasing at an unsustainable rate. The expected savings from implementing this policy are to be reinvested to help fund coverage by increasing the medications that the supplementary health benefits programs cover in the future.

While any biosimilars initiative is a complex operation, being in a northern region means that there were additional considerations, like the logistics of ensuring products could be shipped to certain remote areas. Part of Spooner’s role in supporting the initiative was engaging with stakeholders and experts from across Canada to consider the health policy, medical and patient perspectives, and understand the potential challenges and how they could be solved. Assistant Professor Mina Tadrous at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, who Spooner had worked with while at U of T and the ODPRN, was one of those experts.

“Mina provided some valuable insights toward the biosimilars initiative,” says Spooner. “The willingness of outside experts to collaborate and provide their perspectives and insights and support of the policy had an important role in the success of the initiative.”

The relationships that helped Spooner throughout his education have continued to be important in his career, and he values the support and mentorship he received as a student and continues to receive as a colleague.

“Mentorship has been so important to me, and I’m really grateful that the Faculty was supportive of me during my time at U of T,” he says. “At the same time, the mentorship never really ends. I was excited to share this initiative with all of my mentors at U of T so they can see how all those years of investment and mentorship have paid off.”

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