“I’m driven by the knowledge of the difference we can make": Meet 10 scientists who really inspired us in 2019.
A groundbreaking trial for an HIV vaccine. New ways to help the body heal itself. Immunotherapy treatments for cancer. Behind medical advancements like these are the brilliant scientists who are relentlessly pushing their visions and research forward.
Experiments and tests may happen in the lab, but it’s the people who bring their passion to that work each and every day who make innovation truly come to life.
As 2019 comes to a close, we’re taking a moment to celebrate a few of those very people—Johnson & Johnson’s own dedicated scientists and also researchers who work closely with us on potentially life-changing research—who inspired us this past year with their innovative spirit and dedication to helping improve health for humanity.
A Scientist Working Toward an HIV Vaccine
Almost 2 million people around the world are infected with HIV each year, despite advancements in treatment and prevention. And in sub-Saharan Africa, young women are twice as likely to be living with HIV.
There is hope, however, in the form of a promising investigational preventive HIV vaccine from the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson that’s being tested as part of the Imbokodo study, a Phase 2b (later stage) efficacy study in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa that aims to evaluate the safety of the mosaic-based vaccine regimen and see whether it is able to reduce the incidence of HIV in young women.
Helping lead the charge is Professor Glenda Gray, CEO and President, South African Medical Research Council, and chair of the Imbokodo study.
“As HIV researchers,” Gray says, “we aim to provide the impetus, enthusiasm and inspiration needed to achieve the goal of a preventive vaccine. If the Janssen vaccine is found to work, it will be an important medical advancement and it means a lot to be able to do this and to contribute to science in this way.”
A Scientist Researching New Treatments for Mental Illness
As a teenager, Wayne Drevets, M.D., had friends who struggled with depression. Today, as Scientific Vice President and Disease Area Leader, Mood Disorders, Neuroscience Therapeutic Area, Janssen Research & Development, part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, Drevets oversees a team that’s responsible for innovating new treatments for mental health disorders, including depression.
“My colleagues in the mood disease and neuroscience areas have a clear understanding of how serious depression is, how lethal it can be—and how devastating it is for patients and their families,” Drevets says. “As a result, we’ve worked diligently and thoughtfully together to help treat these patients’ needs. As long as there are people out there with severe mood disorders, our team remains committed to helping them.”
As long as there are people out there with severe mood disorders, our team remains committed to helping them.
A Scientist Determined to Find a Cure for Type 2 Diabetes
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have type 2 diabetes, which is why Chiara Magnone, Ph.D., Vice President, Metabolic Complications, Janssen Research & Development, has her sights set on changing what it means to live with the condition.
Magnone heads up Janssen’s CVM Boston Development Center, which is focused on preventing and treating potentially fatal diabetes-related diseases, such as chronic kidney disease (CKD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
“We’re hoping to use precision medicine to revolutionize metabolic medicine the same way it’s revolutionized oncology,” Magnone explains. “If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, physicians often recommend an individualized treatment, based on a tumor’s specific phenotype or physical characteristics. But with type 2 diabetes and its related complications, there’s often a one-size-fits-all treatment given to patients, even though not everyone responds in the exact same way. Our mission is to change that.”
A Scientist Battling Deadly Blood Cancers
A diagnosis of a potentially fatal cancer at age 13 changed the course of a young man’s life—and inspired the person he would become. Brad Heidrich, Senior Scientist, Janssen, has helped discover and develop treatments for such blood cancers as acute myeloid leukemia, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
Specifically, Heidrich works on immunotherapies, which are treatments that harness the power of patients’ immune systems to fight their disease, including CAR-T cell therapies, which take a patient’s immune cells and reengineer them to recognize and destroy malignant cells.
“The patients really drive me,” Heidrich says. “When we sit in meetings with senior leadership, the one thing we always talk about is what we can do for patients and how quickly. We had the opportunity to meet with some patients, and one of them told us about a friend who became gravely ill and passed away following a battle with cancer. Patients are waiting—I’m always thinking about that.”
Patients are waiting—I’m always thinking about that.
A Scientist Hoping to Heal Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can dominate patients’ everyday lives.
It’s characterized as chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and causes such symptoms as severe diarrhea, stomach pain and bowel urgency. Those with IBD, which encompasses conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, may also experience fevers, vomiting, weight loss and extreme tiredness that can interfere with daily functioning.
But Esi Lamousé-Smith, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Director, Translational Science & Medicine, Immunology, Janssen Research & Development, is working to help unravel the mysteries of IBD by pursuing new avenues of treatment that can help address disturbances in the gut microbiome, which have been implicated in the development of the condition.
“There are actually several opportunities for treatment that we’re researching. In fact, successfully treating IBD may require a combination of approaches,” Lamousé-Smith says. “The work our scientists do is scientifically and clinically rigorous, which brings a whole new level of intellectual satisfaction to my work and increases my determination to develop therapies that could help change the lives of people who have IBD.”
A Scientist Researching the Microbiome to Help Save Lives
In the past decade or so, new technology has given us a more detailed idea of the thousands and thousands of organisms that live in and on our bodies, known as the microbiome.
Dirk Gevers, Ph.D., Global Head of the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute, part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, is heading up research into ways we could use these microbes to our advantage—to do everything from prevent diabetes to reduce inflammation.
“The science is still emerging,” Gevers says, “but we’ve gotten a much better idea of what a microbiome product that could potentially correct this trajectory toward disease looks like, whether that’s a therapeutic, like a probiotic that’s delivered as a pill, drink or lotion; a diagnostic tool or digital app designed to personalize microbiome solutions; or even precision editing of the microbiome, which removes certain organisms that have been shown to be detrimental to our health.”
The science is still emerging, but we’ve gotten a much better idea of what a microbiome product that could potentially correct this trajectory toward disease looks like.
A Scientist Working Toward a Cure for Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer in American men, but the good news, says Margaret Yu, M.D., Vice President, Disease Area Leader, Prostate Cancer, Janssen Research & Development, is that overall outcomes are improving and “many patients are living longer lives.”
“But prostate cancer is very complicated, and while there have been advances, there’s still a huge unmet need in terms of treatment options,” Yu says. “Today we’re making serious headway toward figuring out how to make prostate cancer a truly chronic disease—meaning it is something that can be managed. And of course, the ultimate goal for researchers like myself and the ones working here at Janssen is to cure prostate cancer completely. That’s what all of us are truly fighting for.”
A Scientist Researching a Vaccine for a Potentially Deadly Strain of E. coli
Think of “E. coli,” and you probably picture outbreaks of foodborne illnesses that can cause severe stomach cramps, vomiting and more. But there are other strains of E. coli, called Extraintestinal Pathogenic Escherichia coli (ExPEC) that are dangerous and even fatal, particularly if you’re an older adult.
But thanks to the work of Jan Poolman, Ph.D., Head of Bacterial Vaccines Discovery and Early Development and Disease Area Stronghold Leader Bacterial Vaccines, Janssen, and others, a vaccine may soon be available that could have the potential to protect people age 60 and older from these infections.
“Being able to prevent debilitating and potentially deadly bacteremia and sepsis caused by ExPEC is extremely important since it will be quite a while before we have new antibiotics to treat these conditions,” Poolman says. “And, as the saying goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ ”
Being able to prevent debilitating and potentially deadly bacteremia and sepsis caused by ExPEC is extremely important since it will be quite a while before we have new antibiotics to treat these conditions.
A Scientist Determined to Find a Functional Cure for Hepatitis B
It’s often dubbed the “silent killer.”
That’s because the transmission of hepatitis B—a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) that affects nearly 300 million people worldwide—can go undetected. And if left unchecked, chronic hepatitis B can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis and liver failure.
Heather Davis, Ph.D., Vice President, Hepatitis Research and Development Leader, Janssen, has been studying the disease for nearly 20 years. She is hopeful that medical innovation—such as a combination regimen comprised of multiple mechanisms of action that her team is studying—can potentially help eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030.
“Early in my career, I was struck by the wrenching number of people with hepatitis B, many of whom were infected the day they were born because the disease can be passed from mother to child during delivery,” Davis explains. “Finding a cure could positively impact the lives of so many people and stop the disease from spreading to others. I’m driven by the knowledge of the difference we can make.”
A Scientist Innovating in Immuno-Oncology
Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Emperor of All Maladies, has long worked to understand cancer—and uncover new ways it might be treated.
Now, as co-founder of Vor Biopharma, Dr. Mukherjee is continuing to search for answers and hopes to one day soon be able to offer patients battling acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare and deadly type of blood cancer, an immuno-oncology therapy that works.
“The basic problem in cancer immunotherapy is that often you can find antigens, or specific markers, in cancer cells against which you can direct immunotherapy. But those same antigens are present in normal cells, too. So when you treat with immunotherapy, you kill the patient’s cancer, but you also kill their normal cells, so patients’ toxicity threshold is rapidly reached and they can’t be given more drugs,” Mukherjee explains.
“We decided to look at the possibility of removing these antigens from normal cells,” he continues. “When you do that, you make the markers cancer-specific—you basically bioengineer a cancer-specific target. And if you do that, it turns out, you can direct immunotherapy against cancer cells within a nearly infinite therapeutic window.”