How Curiosity Drives Scientists

On challenges, opportunities, and motivation in the field of research and development in the healthcare sector

How Curiosity Drives Scientists

13 years[1] – this is how long scientists work, on average, on the development of a new medication. Yet despite working on a drug for over a decade, the chances of it actually being approved are quite small. The biggest obstacle is the failure rate; the molecules which form a therapeutic drug need to fulfill specific efficacy, tolerability, and manufacturability requirements. In the field of oncology, there are also additional hurdles, like constantly changing therapeutic standards. All of this means that scientists engaged in pharmaceutical research need to have a high tolerance for frustration, and something special inside that keeps them motivated to continue researching.

So how do our scientists remain motivated despite these lengthy and often fruitless processes? What drives our researchers? In a word, curiosity. Klaus Urbahns, Head of Discovery and Development Technologies, explains: “What matters is curiosity and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve patients’ lives using state-of-the-art technology.” Our scientists’ attitude can be summed up in the phrase “the patient is waiting,” and this is what repeatedly motivates and inspires them to press ahead. Dong Zhang, who conducts research in the field of immuno-oncology, adds: “My scientific curiosity is driven by my passion and my desire to change patients’ lives.” 

Besides curiosity and patient welfare, there are other factors that help the scientists and companies overcome challenges in research and development. One important aspect is focusing on core areas, which allows us to conduct research with proven expertise and resources. As such, we focus on three main areas: oncology, immuno-oncology, and immunology, and within these fields, on three therapeutic modalities: small molecule pharmaceuticals, therapeutic antibodies, and antibody-drug conjugates. In order to make optimum use of our resources, we also conduct critical testing in the early stages of research to reveal whether the data looks promising. This gives us the ability to quickly decide whether to continue or terminate a program.

Portrait of Mr. Urbahn Portrait of Mr. Urbahn

In addition to these examples of structural and organizational moments, an enthusiasm for science, curiosity, and a desire to discover new things and conduct research is simply in scientists’ DNA. As Klaus Urbahns notes, many of our researchers draw their inner drive from this feeling of wonder. Which is why today, in the 21st century, we can understand diseases at the molecular level and use personalized medicine to generate targeted treatment for our patients. Furthermore, by incorporating artificial intelligence and new data analytics methods into our technologies, it is possible to more quickly develop and deliver medicines and get them approved, so that we can get them into patients’ hands more quickly and systematically. According to Mr. Urbahns, “there has never been a better time to work in research and development.”

As a vibrant science and technology company, promoting a culture of curiosity for our employees is also extremely important to us. “Through an open and stimulating work environment combined with teamwork and a can-do attitude, we can overcome any obstacle together. Here at "Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany", the scientists are our company’s ‘heroes’, since they play a key role that is absolutely essential to our success,” says Mr. Urbahns. Emphasizing further, he adds, “without their passion and curiosity, there simply wouldn’t be any of the progress and innovation which significantly improves patients’ lives.”

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