2 min read

Most people think successful drug discovery efforts depend on scientific rigor and discipline, but one of the most important factors behind a productive team is inspiration. 

I bet that this may not be what you were expecting to hear from a medicinal chemist with nearly 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, but it’s true. 

You see, drug discovery is incredibly difficult and there’s a very high failure rate along the way. As a trained chemist, I know how to make and break chemical bonds using different chemical reactions. Under controlled conditions, however, many of the experiments I run fail to produce the desired product. Changing reaction conditions (e.g., temperature, catalysts, reaction times, etc.) through experimentation can allow reactions to proceed to give the molecules of interest.

That cycle, which involves spending long days in the lab to create and submit molecules for biological testing to determine the effect of the molecular changes, is repeated week after week, month after month, year after year. Many times, the molecular changes result in molecules with reduced biological activity and/or reduced drug-like properties.

For those of us in research and development, each failure can feel like a punch to the chest. Over time, it can become discouraging, particularly given that patients are counting on us to provide them with transformative medicines. 

It’s the patients though who keep us going and welcoming them into our research labs has become an important part of who we are at Vertex. We regularly host visitors for organized tours. Meeting them first-hand has a lasting impact on us all and they leave us feeling more inspired than ever.

A few years ago a mom and her daughter, who was living with cystic fibrosis, toured our research labs here in San Diego. As we were wrapping up the tour of the chemistry lab, the mom asked me to sign their tour agenda. In turn, I asked them to sign something for us so that we could remember their visit, so I reached for one of the small Erlenmeyer flasks that were in the lab. She signed her words of inspiration on its glass and that started the tradition of our “Patient Flasks.”

Every time I see the words that mom wrote on that flask, I’m reminded of the look of hope in her eyes and the role my colleagues and I play in their story. Since then, visitors have added their names and words of encouragement to the flask, ultimately resulting in the creation of multiple flasks capturing hundreds of signatures from patients, their caregivers, and advocates from the cystic fibrosis community and beyond.

The words and names found on the flasks serve as a reminder of the impact our work has on the lives of so many people. They provide a daily reminder that despite failures and set-backs we encounter along the discovery journey, we can impact lives if we are relentless, and continue to focus on achieving our end goal of bringing transformative medicines to the patients who need them.