Dr. Jirong Lu, a distinguished research fellow at Eli Lilly and Company (Lilly), traces the beginnings of her career to a high school fascination with chemistry. When she entered university in her home country of China, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry was a natural fit. Her love for science later set the path for graduate school, which she finished with a post-doctoral research project in the U.S. involving the study of protein structure and function. After that, an advertisement for a new group at Lilly to optimize proteins for therapeutic use motivated her to apply for a job in the industry. She has since been at the company for 21 years.
Dr. Lu and her team work to discover, design and optimize proteins, peptides and antibodies for therapeutic use. These various types of protein biomolecules are made from a chain of amino acids that can be designed to impact the functioning of biological processes in organisms and cells by promoting or blocking biological pathways involved in disease states.
In doing so, these therapeutic agents can slow the onset of diseases such as cancer and various neurodegenerative conditions. Additionally, these biomolecules can help manage pain and treat conditions like diabetes. Dr. Lu and her team hope to develop and deliver treatments that ultimately reverse or contain the spread of disease.
The Driving Force
Dr. Lu says one of the most rewarding experiences of her career was to be a part of the team that brought a recently FDA-approved treatment for psoriasis, from hypothesis generation stage to the market. The process took a total of 15 years and Dr. Lu was a member of the team from the beginning.
"It is really, really exciting as a drug discovery scientist to be able to see something you’ve worked on for so long finally be able to help people,” says Dr. Lu. “It’s almost like a dream come true."
Challenges, Chance and Looking Forward
Biopharmaceutical research and development requires immense amounts of investment, and even still, scientists can be frustrated with the high failure rate, as only 12 percent of medicines in clinical trials ultimately make it to patients. For example, Dr. Lu recalls her work on a potential Alzheimer’s treatment, which ultimately did not make it through phase III clinical trials.
“When we learned of the failure, many scientists teared up, not only because we put so much effort trying to get the potential medicine to patients, but also because we know there are no treatment options for this devastating disease,” Dr. Lu says. “It was really disappointing, but ultimately, it was encouraging because we learned from the failure and are better prepared for what comes next.”
To aid the innovation process, Dr. Lu says it will take collaboration from all areas, including policymakers who she recently met with in Washington, DC, who can work together with biopharmaceutical manufacturers to ensure the new era of medicine continues to benefit patients.
“We need to establish policies that speed the innovation to patients and provide access to those who need it,” Dr. Lu says. “The innovative medicines and breakthrough treatments have the potential to serve millions of people, making life better for everyone.”
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