When Jean Merrill ’69 was in graduate school, she planned to research the biological processes of rheumatoid arthritis. “I was fascinated by autoimmune disorders,” she says, “by the idea that a body would turn against itself.” Then she met a researcher who told her about a mysterious autoimmune disease of the brain, multiple sclerosis (MS). She was intrigued; months later she departed for Stockholm to begin postgraduate work on MS at the Karolinska Institute.
Thirty-five years later, Merrill has significantly broadened the scientific understanding of MS. She’s led teams with more than 50 MS researchers on several continents and has been named as a co-inventor on four patents for work on MS drugs. She’s been a professor, a laboratory researcher and a senior executive at billion-dollar, multinational pharmaceutical companies, giving her a uniquely broad perspective on the business and medical side of research. She recently retired as senior vice president and global head of neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis research, neurodegenerative diseases, at EMD Serono. Here she reflects on neuroimmunology, leadership and lessons learned during a career in the sciences.
Discouragement can be a great motivator
With any autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks healthy tissue. With multiple sclerosis, the target of the attack is the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord. It’s an absolutely brutal disease. When I started working in MS, doctors had to look patients in the eye—young patients who were looking at a lifetime of debilitation—and tell them there were no treatments. But during the 34 years I worked in MS research, I was part of a vast change in how we understand and treat MS. I saw several effective treatments developed. I’m gratified that just last year, an MS drug on which I spent many years working—Aubagio (Teriflunomide)—was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Sometimes mistakes lead to discovery
The first effective MS treatments were discovered as the result of a flawed hypothesis. In the early 1980s, the leading theory was that MS was caused by a virus. Indeed, my first mentor, at the Karolinska Institute, was a virologist. With that as the working theory, scientists treated patients with interferon gamma, an antiviral agent that activates the body’s immune system. Unfortunately, the disease progressed faster for these patients. Then some scientists tried interferon beta, also an antiviral, but one that suppresses the immune response. These patients improved. That’s when it became clear that MS was an autoimmune disease.
And so do failures
I’d estimate that up to 90 percent of our drug discovery attempts to find a treatment for MS do not succeed. I worked on a molecule that successfully repaired myelin, the insulation around axons. Although we demonstrated clearly that the treatment worked, it had long-term side effects that prevented us from bringing it to market. Although this was a failure in product terms, it advanced science in a profoundly exciting way. We confirmed that myelin could be repaired, which points the way toward a powerful new generation of medicines.
Keep an open mind
I studied science at Smith, but I also studied music and art and literature. Partly as a result, I have always brought an openness to my work. Often, I find myself testing common assumptions, asking, “What if the opposite were true? What kinds of experiments would we do then?” For the last 15 years I have studied Argentine tango, and singing has been a part of my life since my Smith days. These activities have been more than mere hobbies; they have honed my openness to the world around me. They taught me to read cues, to pay attention, to make connections across a landscape of inputs and ideas. Ultimately, they’ve helped me to solve problems in creative ways. That’s what the liberal arts are all about.
And listen to your inner voice
We all have a little voice trying to direct us. In recent years, mine has either gotten louder, or I’ve gotten better at listening. In the 1990s, I had a great career as an academic researcher. But I wrote 10 grants for every one that got accepted, and I didn’t see that changing any time soon. So I got an M.B.A. and moved from academics into the corporate pharmaceutical world, where I became a senior executive. It was an enormous change, and it was a scary one. But it brought me closer to patients, and that was very satisfying.
The path continues
I recently retired, and my husband, Doug, and I are heading from New Jersey to Shiprock, New Mexico, to help teens from Apache and Navajo tribes launch entrepreneurial ventures. In the end, that’s what it’s all about: applying the essence of what you love—in my case, directing teams and trying to improve lives—in a new way. It’s just another way of continuing on my unique path.
Ali Benjamin is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts. This story appears in the 2013 Fall Quarterly.