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One scientist’s work to make a difference in the lives of millions

with Jay Grobler, executive director, infectious diseases and vaccines

June 23, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a stark reminder of the potential dangers and impact of infectious diseases. Jay Grobler, executive director, infectious diseases and vaccines, spoke with us about the scientific learnings that our work may provide as we take steps to combat not only today’s, but also tomorrow’s, infectious agents.

From the moment Jay finished his post-doctoral studies, he wanted to make a difference in the world by positively impacting the health of as many people as possible. Today he continues to play an important role leading a team of researchers advancing the discovery and development of Merck’s HIV portfolio.

So, after years of conducting virology research that has yielded several important medicines and a robust pipeline, we thought that sharing Jay’s perspective on infectious disease research and discovery would be of particular interest during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must remember that global pandemics are not a new thing: there was the Black Plague in the 14th century, the flu epidemic of 1918, HIV in the 1980s – to name a few – and, of course, today we are battling COVID-19. All of these have had tremendous impact on society. Unfortunately, history indicates that we are likely to see others in the future. So, ensuring that we learn from these outbreaks is critical to better prepare us for the future.

The evolution of HIV research and treatment options

When I joined the company back in the late 1990s, I became part of an organization that ultimately resulted in the discovery and development of novel medicines to treat HIV and hepatitis C. I was extremely fortunate to start my antiviral research journey here at Merck at that exciting time, and I’ve never looked back.

Since then, HIV research and treatments have evolved substantially, with progress coming in waves. I’m proud to say that we’ve played a substantial role in achieving important milestones along the way.

I am confident that this deep institutional knowledge and experience in virology will prove useful as the world races to find answers in the fight against COVID-19.

Asking big and bold questions

Working with an incredible team, my job is to not only ask the big and bold questions, but to find the answers, and most importantly, to understand why.

We look closely at how viruses respond to antiviral agents, to see what works, what changes happen in the virus to make them resistant to drugs, and how can we refine molecules to make them most useful. In the end, we’re looking to make better drugs that are well tolerated by the patients and do not lead to pathogen resistance.

That’s why teams across our company are researching COVID-19 and collaborating with a range of research organizations to accelerate development of medicines and vaccines for this virus. We are also working with ACTIV, a public-private partnership, to prioritize vaccine and drug candidates, streamline clinical trials and regulatory processes, and/or leverage assets to rapidly respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics.

And, we continue to ask the complex questions because we know they can lead to “a-ha moments” – those moments that really make the difference. And striving for those keeps me awake at night and gets me out of bed every day.

Inventing to make a difference

As inventors, we design and create novel molecules with the purpose of treating disease. But success is more than just creating new molecules; our inventions must make a difference for people who need them.

There’s truly no better feeling than when I hear from those positively impacted by our medicines and vaccines. It brings meaning and passion to my work and motivates me to keep going.

And with infectious diseases, we need to keep going as quickly as possible – there is no luxury of time here. We must take the greatest intelligence we have coupled with the insights of our past to keep moving and progressing. Because we know that now, and in the future, time is critical – people’s lives are at stake.

I want to look back some day to know one thing – I made a difference.