With multiple close family members impacted by respiratory diseases, René van der Merwe’s work as a biopharmaceutical researcher is personal. Her 16 years of experience have overseen the research, development and launch of impactful treatments for severe asthma, and today, she works passionately to continue that work in her role as vice president, clinical respiratory at AstraZeneca.
“I joined AstraZeneca for the science,” says René. “The work they do is absolutely phenomenal. When I started at the company 10 years ago, research into biologics for asthma was in its early stage, and it has been so exciting to help advance the field — to see how things were changing and how we could make a difference.”
Unlike traditional medicine, biologic treatments contain elements of proteins which has a profound impact on the way they treat disease. The ability to alter cellular processes underlies biologics’ effectiveness by changing the pathway of a disease to end, or at least severely mute, symptoms.
A second benefit is the personalization biologics provide. Severe asthma is known as a “heterogeneous condition,” meaning it expresses itself differently in each patient.
We used to treat asthma with a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but now we know that’s not how asthma can be treated,” says René. “Biologics provide us the kind of precision that can allow us to provide the right medicines to the right patients.” This paradigm shift took place over the last decade and is just one example of the incredible advances being made in today’s new era of medicine.
“Ten years ago, no severe asthmatic would ever think that they would ever have normal lung function, but this outcome is now possible because of innovation,” says René. “If you want to defend innovation, you need to ask the patient receiving the medicine, ‘How did it change your life?’ or ‘How is it to no longer feel like you’re suffocating, but actually feel like you’re breathing again?’ Would any of us say innovation should not continue?”
The Driving Force
René says she is humbled by her ability to make a difference in the lives of patients — including those in her own family.
“It’s phenomenal to think I worked on something that actually reshapes the paradigm of how severe asthma is being treated,” she says. “The fact that we can move away from less targeted treatments and possibly give patients their lives back is so rewarding.”
Challenges and Collaboration
René says the possibilities for biologic research are incredibly promising. Scientists can not only detect the signs of severe asthma earlier in a patient’s life, but they can also work to tailor therapies to each patient’s unique physiology, reducing wasted time and effort in finding the right treatment.
“As advances are made in treating severe asthma, we can better understand how the disease works on a cellular level and which subsets of patients respond to our medicines,” she says. “For the very first time, we’re thinking about curing the disease. We’re entering this new frontier with asthma where patients have options.”
As exciting as these developments have been, to René, they remain only the beginning.
“We’ve made such progress in asthma — far more in the last five years than in the past two decades,” she says. “It’s my hope that within the next five to seven years, we’re able to treat much larger subsets of patients and give them their lives back – help them breathe again.”
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