Solving the Alzheimer’s Puzzle in a Meaningful Way for Patients

Today’s guest post is from Dustin James Mergott, Ph.D. Dr. Mergott is a Research Advisor and Group Leader - Discovery Chemistry Research & Technologies at Lilly.

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My work in Lilly Research Laboratories (LRL) is focused on discovering new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. I’m incredibly proud to work for Lilly, a company that has dedicated 27 years – and thousands of corresponding researcher hours – to solving the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease. We’re not there yet, but, as an industry, with nearly two dozen potential treatments at various stages of drug development, I think we are close to solving the Alzheimer’s puzzle in a meaningful way for patients.

If you read the newspaper (or more likely a news app these days), you’ve undoubtedly seen the coverage of the pharmaceutical industry. Some positive, focusing on research and breakthroughs. Some less than positive when questions are raised about a specific company or drug. This dialogue is important but, as a drug-discovery scientist, the negative public perception of the biopharmaceutical industry cuts to my core. When I talk with my mom about this negative perception, it is hard for her to reconcile the pride she feels for the important work that I do with what she reads about my industry. We talk often about how incredible it would be to tell my research story and influence public policy and perception.

In September, PhRMA, the industry’s trade association, invited me to Capitol Hill for a research fly-in. I had been on Capitol Hill only as a tourist, never on “official business.” It was surreal walking between buildings where the hallways would be quiet, then suddenly bustle with activity. Was there a key vote everyone was rushing to? Were they going to a hearing in the Energy and Commerce committee, which has jurisdiction over Food and Drug Administration issues? Whoa!

During the day, I met with six offices. I told them I knew I wanted to be a chemist when I was a freshman in high school. Based on the responses I got, I guess this is uncommon. I shared my personal research story, how the failure inherent in drug discovery affects me personally, and how I still start every day with the vision that, against complex diseases and tall odds, today might be the day we make the next big breakthrough. I talked about Alzheimer’s research at Lilly – how we don’t describe our clinical trials as “big gambles,” but rather key research experiments in which we will either succeed or learn from our failures, revise our disease hypotheses and run better experiments next time. 

I was paired with two remarkable Lilly colleagues, Eiry Roberts and Allen Mellemed, for the day. We teamed up to tell our stories together. Teamwork is how new drugs are discovered, and we shared how we collaborate every day across the drug discovery spectrum. I was energized by the dialogue we engaged in directly with Representatives Young, Buchson, and Messer, as well as the offices of Representative Carson, and Senators Donnelly and Coates. 

We squeezed around small tables in each office. These are not luxurious, spacious places to work. The staff are crammed behind small desks, and there is usually a couch that apparently serves as a bed during late-night congressional sessions. But they were wonderful nonetheless – great listeners who wanted to hear our personal research stories and better understand how we try to tackle challenging diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders and Alzheimer’s disease every day. I am so hopeful that this is only the beginning of a long conversation about the research side of the biopharmaceutical industry that helps people better understand what we do every day, how hard it is and how much we love it anyway! 

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