Pharma industry honors N.J. “discoverers”

    Two New Jersey scientists will share one of the pharmaceutical industry’s highest honors for their work on a new type 2 diabetes medication.

    In the late 1990s, there were three main ways to control type 2 diabetes with an oral medication. All three approaches came with big risks for weight gain or the potential to push blood sugar to dangerously low levels.

    Merck researcher Nancy Thornberry gathered a team to try a novel approach–and hopefully–avoid those side effects.

    “So, Nancy called me in early 2000. Our kids actually had swimming lessons at the same time, so we would talk about this at the YMCA,” said Merck chemist Ann Weber.

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    Weber says the idea was to block an enzyme in the blood called DPP-4 and boost the body’s natural ability to lower blood sugar.

    The team turned to Merck’s storehourse of top-secret compounds looking for a “hit.”

    “So our job as drug-discovery scientists is to take each compound that might be a drug and find out as quickly as possible whether it could be drug or not, because most of them aren’t going to be drugs,” Weber said.

    Eight hundred compounds later–and after lots of fine tuning by Weber’s team–they discovered sitagliptin. Merck sells the medicine under the brand name Januvia.

    It can take 10 to 15 years to get a drug approved, but the company took several steps to fast track the process. Merck took a financial risk and front-loaded its investment by making up batches of the candidate medicine before the team was absolutely sure it would work. The drugmaker also conducted some of the early trials simultaneously, instead of waiting for the results from one study, before launching the next.

    Weber says the gamble paid off, and Januvia went to market after just seven years.

    “So many people in our business never get to work on a successful project because almost everything that we do fails. It was the highlight of my career and I think the highlight of many of us on the team,” she said.

    The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America will present the Discoverers Award to Weber and Nancy Thornberry on April 14.

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