“I learned about the chemistry, and then thought, how can I make this better?” he says. “What roadblocks do I see, and how can we remove those so when we start making larger amounts we are set to go?”
The creativity he used to jump over those roadblocks is something he credits to years of seeing the "shades of grey" in a field that many of his colleagues feel is black and white.
“In drug discovery, there’s yes or no but there’s also what if. It might be black and white with data, but in terms of developing the compounds, you just don’t know sometimes until you get the result. You’ll have to make decisions, and there’s going to be a lot of grey in that. As scientists, we need to be able to handle it.”
Morton’s keeping this in mind as the compound moves on to the next stage, knowing that all his work could result in disappointment.
“It’s as if your child is finally out there, and the report card’s coming,” Morton says. “It’s scarier than other phases of the process, because most compounds fail in the early stages of the clinical trial process.”
He’s been around long enough to know to take victories where you can find them, though.
“Most compounds never get this far – only 1 percent of them, actually. Which is pretty incredible when you think about it, that we got this from a volunteer effort.”
The Waiting Game
It’s hard to get von Geldern or Morton to take credit for anything. They are adamant that hundreds of hands touched the molecule that could one day change how river blindness is treated.
They also insist that the work they’ve done has been just as rewarding for them as it has been instrumental to the molecule they helped create.
“On a day-to-day basis, the drive is just the science and trying to answer those small questions we have about what we’re trying to make,” von Geldern says.
“But what’s cool about our work is that the things we make really make people’s lives better. It’s hard to imagine a job that’s this much fun to do, fun to practice on the science level, but that still gives you that positive outcome at the end of the day. There aren’t many things that match up with that.”
They do agree that this type of work needs a specific skill set: technical ability, time, dedication and the kind of perspective only experience can bring.
“It’s understanding the big picture, the magnitude of things,” Morton says. “Realizing that it’s not just me, the chemist, on the bench … There’s all these other interactions, things that have to be done and bridges that have to be built to pull this off. And that’s the kind of thing you have to keep your eye on. You’re not in a vacuum. It’s a real team that evolves as the compound develops.”
As for actual retirement, von Geldern doesn’t see it happening for him anytime soon. In fact, he worries that he’ll overstay his welcome.
“There will come a time when they won’t want me in the lab,” he says. “This field continuously evolves, and I’m not as attuned to it as when I was doing it 24/7,365. I can envision that at some point my knowledge and skills will become irrelevant. But for now … these projects are fun; they have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives – so who wouldn’t want to spend time on that?”
Morton wants to stick around to see if this molecule does what it’s meant to do.
“No one has ever used this approach to impact this disease- so the question I want to see answered is, does it work in patients?” Morton says. “I’d love to see yes or no. Because if the answer’s yes, that opens up a whole new way to approach this disease.”
But in terms of lab work, he thinks he’ll step back as soon as this summer, to spend some time with his wife.
Or, maybe not.
“I keep saying I’m going to stop … and then I keep extending it,” he says. “The need is pretty persuasive. The thing is it’s not just one or two people – its millions of people that are at risk for these neglected diseases.”
He stops a minute; then speaks again, more forcefully.
“The fight deserves to be taken. Hopefully we’ll win. And like everything I’ve worked on in my career … there are people waiting.”
|Mary Kathryn Steel
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