First class graduates in UC and Xiamen joint drug development master's program

Pioneering program in the College of Pharmacy partners with China’s Xiamen University to prepare students for the drug discovery and approval process

The first international cohort of students in the University of Cincinnati’s Master of Pharmaceutical Sciences with Drug Development Specialization (MSDD) program graduated this spring.

Their year on UC’s campus was the second year of their joint degree program in China’s Xiamen University School of Pharmaceutical Sciences and UC’s James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy.

Pioneering MSDD program

Their unique international program was based on the College of Pharmacy’s innovative MS with Emphasis in Drug Development. The first of its kind, that MSDD degree was created in 2004 to instruct professionals and researchers in the entire multidisciplinary discovery and approval process for new drugs and medical devices. This includes the business and marketing decisions and the government policies involved in global pharmaceutical development. “The scientific, regulatory, and business aspects, all put together in one, what in our minds is a cohesive package,” as Program Director Dr. Pankaj Desai sums it up.

“To really get to know [a research area] in depth, you need to focus, and you need to learn that aspect quite well. But then, while you’re doing that, you also have to have this global view, the 30,000-foot view. So how do you teach this? Nobody really learns that in a typical graduate school. Nobody really gets to know a lot about this entire global view even in industry.”

Desai partnered with Dr. Jianfei (Jeff) Guo, professor of pharmacoeconomics, and with a team of 35 from the College of Pharmacy, College of Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center the and regional industries to fill that gap. They developed an innovative evening curriculum for working professionals. In 2013, they took the program online, too.

Xiamen joint master’s degree

The joint degree program with Xiamen University was established in 2017. Desai and Guo quickly identified Xiamen as a potential international partner because of its similar focus on translational science, which moves research into practical, real-world applications to solve health problems.

“It’s probably one of the finest institutions right now in China,” says Desai. “So the idea was that we could work with them, provide them the content that is in compliance with the graduate program requirements at UC. The students at Xiamen take classes there in the first year with the help of the Xiamen faculty.” Some Xiamen faculty traveled to UC for training and to observe classes on site.

First class

Chenyu Zou, Yiyu Chen, Cheng Zhong, and Yao Liu completed their first year of study at Xiamen and earned admission to UC in fall 2018.

The first-year course was challenging, requiring them to adapt to studying both in another language and in the self-directed, analytical style of an American graduate school.

Chen laughs. “I remember the first lesson — ‘We don’t understand! What are you saying?’ The first lecture’s video, we watched it three times, I think.” (“More!” the others chime in.) According to Zou, “In the U.S., the teacher will say, ‘You don’t have to remember everything in the textbook, and in class we don’t teach you something you can find by yourself on a website or on a cell phone. We just teach you something that is less familiar.’ It may come from their own research, their own experience, maybe in industry or in pharmaceutical companies. It’s a new thing for Chinese students, I think.”

The four Xiamen University MSDD students pose with two professors

Students in the UC/Xiamen MSDD program pose with Program Director Pankaj Desai and Professor Jeff Guo

Studying drug development

Despite the challenges, the students praise the program’s comprehensive scope because it allowed them time to decide what part of the drug development process they want to focus on in their studies and careers.

“I want to know the whole process of drug development, not only what we have done in the labs,” said Chen last fall. “This program is a good chance for me to find what I really want to learn in the future, and I think I’ve found that. I’ve decided to learn pharmacoeconomics.”

Pharmacoeconomics is a branch of study that looks at cost/benefit factors that influence healthcare decision makers and policy makers. For her master’s capstone project this year, Chen worked with Guo on a project examining price and usage data from Medicare about brand-name and generic statins.

Zou was also influenced by working with Guo. “My capstone project is about post-marketing pharmacovigilance for a medical device, E-sure, a birth control device. The pharmaceutical company withdrew this medical device due to safety problems here in the US.”

Pharmacovigilance is the process of monitoring drug or device safety once a product is on the market. Zou became passionately interested in the subject in her very first class with Guo here at UC, after watching the documentary "The Bleeding Edge." She collected data about the device from the FDA and analyzed the manufacturer’s and the government’s responses.

Zhong studied with another faculty member, Dr. Kevin Li, to test surfactants used in eye medications. The compounds are added to medications to keep them sterile and to help deliver drugs into the body, but they can potentially irritate or damage eye tissues. Zhong modeled the compounds’ actions to predict their safety in human use. “We test the extent of the damage and the safe time range that the surfactant can stay in our eyes.”

Unlike the other three, Liu came into the program with a very specific aim. Back home, he is part of a research team working on a drug that shows some promise. “It’s for wound healing, like for diabetic patients.” It may also have cosmetic applications in skin rejuvenation. Liu worked with Desai to study related products and the international regulatory process.


Chen, Zou, and Zhong graduated this spring and walked in the college and university bicentennial commencement ceremonies. All three plan to pursue PhDs in the US. Chen and Zou have been accepted at Auburn.

Liu will complete his degree in August. After graduation, he will return home with plans and the base of knowledge he needs to help bring his team’s wound healing drug to market. As his mentor Desai points out, “Xiamen also has — in addition to the college of pharmacy, the biological science s —they also have translational research programs. And in and around Xiamen, there are also industries doing some really innovative work. So there is going to be more and more need for Yao’s background, [researchers] who are good in discovery but also know how to actually make this a commercial success in reality.”

Featured photo above: Yiyu Chen, Cheng Zhong and Chenyu Zou pose with Professor Jeff Guo. Lao Yiu is not pictured.

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