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Here for Good: Putting patients at the heart of innovation

For clinical researcher Janethe de Oliveira Pena, unmet needs in patient health serve as an urgent call to action

October 31, 2022

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Far-off galaxies and distant stars first sparked Janethe de Oliveira Pena’s imagination, but she eventually found her calling delving into the mysteries hidden within the human body.

A native of Brazil, Pena joined Merck as AVP, cardiovascular clinical development in 2022. She currently leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers focused on advancing research in the field of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH).

“I was a dreamer as a child. At that time, I was dreaming of finding something extraordinary — finding a new planet, a new star. I still am a dreamer today,” she said.

As a medical student, that sense of exploration led Pena into research, where she discovered a passion that has carried through her career, from her time as a professor of immunology to her transition to the pharmaceutical industry.

Learn more about her journey:

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Pena’s work focuses on PAH — a rare, progressive and life-threatening blood vessel disorder in which the pulmonary arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood from the right side of the heart into the lungs) become thickened and narrowed. As a result, the right side of the heart would need to work harder to pump blood into the lungs. This additional stress can cause strain on the heart because it’s not able to pump enough blood into the lungs to meet the requirements of the body.

People with PAH often develop heart failure and have a shorter life expectancy than those not living with the disease. The five-year mortality rate for patients with PAH in the U.S. is approximately 43 percent.

In the U.S., approximately 1,000 people are diagnosed with PAH each year, and the disease impacts less than 50,000 people, making it a rare disease.

“The interesting thing about rare diseases is that there isn’t as much awareness about them, but in my experience, when you start talking about them, it’s incredible how many people know someone who has been touched by this condition.”

  • Janethe de Oliveira Pena
Janethe de Oliveira Pena

Since joining Merck, Pena has found inspiration in the collaborative spirit across our company. “We’re really working as one team and winning as one team,” she said. “There’s no single person who is more important than another. If you have a 5,000-piece puzzle and you’re missing one single piece, you don’t have the full picture.”

Even though Pena’s work has her focused on small vessels, arteries and the human heart, she hasn’t stopped looking toward the stars. “I still like to read about physics,” she said. “There’s so much unknown, there’s so much to be discovered. I think that is fascinating.”