Behind the relentless pursuit of multiple myeloma cures
Johnson & Johnson has been dedicated to developing innovative treatments for blood cancers for nearly 20 years. Scientist Kodandaram “Ram” Pillarisetti is at the forefront of the company’s commitment to working toward its goal of one day eliminating the disease.
“I still remember that exact moment when I thought, ‘Wow, this might work,’ ” says Pillarisetti, a scientist and discovery lead at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. It was, he adds, one of the most exciting points of his career. “The next morning, the first thing I did was run into my boss’s office to show him the data. When he looked as excited as I was, I knew we were on to something.”
In the 10 years that followed, Pillarisetti and a global team of employees across multiple functions have turned that novel molecule into a treatment that was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s welcome news for patients with later-line relapsed refractory multiple myeloma who need additional options to help manage their illness.
While treatable, the disease is currently incurable and considered very difficult to manage because it almost always relapses.
“To take a drug from the lab to FDA approval is tough to do in 20 years,” says Pillarisetti. “Doing it in 10 is truly remarkable.”
For Blood Cancer Awareness Month, learn more about Pillarisetti’s passion for science and his work to advance the field of multiple myeloma research—and one day find a cure.
Did a particular person in your life inspire you to study science?
For as long as I can remember, I was interested in the subject. My inspiration is my father.
He was an agronomy professor who worked on rice crops—he studied how to improve rice production in drought conditions—so I always thought I’d go into plant sciences like he did.
I grew up in Hyderabad, India, which is where I also got all my education. Then, in my early 30s, I came to the U.S. for a conference and settled here after considering the opportunities for work. Around that time, I first learned about molecular biology and what it’s capable of doing. I was amazed and knew I wanted to pursue a career in that field.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about scientists that you’d love the chance to correct?
Many people don’t realize how much effort and time is required to develop a drug—or how many people it takes. I would love it if there were more awareness around what goes into studying a new molecule and how many scientists have to think about the pros and cons of whether it will work as a treatment for patients.
As a scientist, this is something I’ve learned and experienced several times in my career: A small change in the experiment that may be tempting to ignore can turn out to be something really big.
I love the scientific discussions that happen when we’re studying a new molecule, especially when there are opposing ideas or suggestions. That’s what makes the process interesting—it prompts all of us to think differently and to come up with new ideas or new ways of thinking. As a team leader, I interact with many people from many different groups. It’s enlightening to see how people think in different ways.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mom always used to say, “Do the right thing. Do the correct thing.” If you think something is good and correct, just do it. Because even if you fail, it’ll be OK.
What’s the coolest thing about your work?
My work helps patients, which I feel grateful for every day. Thinking that a patient might live longer thanks to one of the therapies that my team has developed is an incredible feeling. It really makes me take a step back and say, “Wow, I really contributed to something special.”
If we were talking 20 years from now, what innovation would you be excited to tell me about?
I would love to see a cure for multiple myeloma. The disease is very resistant to drugs, and the recurrence rate is high. If we could get to a point where we stop it completely, that would be remarkable. And, of course, if any of the therapies that we discover or develop might play a role in providing a curative regimen in the future, that would be very exciting.
What advice would you give to young people in school or just starting out in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) space?
I would tell anyone in the science field—and especially those working at the bench in the lab—to analyze the data very carefully and to be on the lookout for subtle changes. Sometimes a very small change can surprise you in a big way. As a scientist, this is something I’ve learned and experienced several times in my career: A small change in the experiment that may be tempting to ignore can turn out to be something really big.
If someone tells me about a patient who is recovering nicely, that’s good. And if I hear a patient is relapsing, it inspires me to think about what we can do better.
Back in my early days at Janssen R&D, when I was working on a different molecule, I noticed a result that initially seemed insignificant. But my team and I decided to look closer. At first, we thought we were chasing something inconsequential. But that small, seemingly insignificant result turned out to be an important biomarker for multiple myeloma that we used in 2013 to discover the molecule that would go on to become a breakthrough treatment.
It’s proof that scientists need to be very critical, especially when it comes to analyzing their own data.
What are your passions outside of work?
I’m a family guy. I have two sons, and I like to go fishing with them. I also like gardening, cooking and I have a hobby of fragging coral, which involves cutting a small piece of coral from a larger “mother” colony and then relocating that fragment to grow elsewhere. I have a saltwater aquarium and give some of the corals to friends and family.
Who in your field—and outside your field—inspires you?
In my personal life, it’s my wife. She inspires me and always supports me.
At work, I get inspired when clinicians share news—good or bad—about their patients with multiple myeloma. If someone tells me about a patient who is recovering nicely, that’s good. And if I hear a patient is relapsing, it inspires me to think about what we can do better.
When I hear from patients—when they say, “I lived for this many more days happily, and I was able to spend more time with grandkids”—that is most inspiring.
It motivates me to do more.