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A researcher is never alone

The pharmacist Wiebke Saal is trying to find a molecule at Roche. The aim is to help people with intestinal disorders. The problem is that nobody knows what causes this type of illness. What can we do? Wiebke is doing what she did when she was a student and had to retake an exam – she’s working hard. And most importantly she relies on teamwork.

You’ve got two young children. How do you explain your job to them?

My children are more interested in the Roche Tower than in my job (she laughs). When they’re older, I’ll tell them that I develop molecules that can help sick people. My job is to get a really good understanding of the molecule. How does it behave? Does it dissolve easily just like sugar? Or does it behave more like flour clumping together at the bottom of a bowl? What do I need to do to get it to dissolve in the body properly? And can I help it get to where it’s most effective?

Your team is trying to solve the problem of improving medication for inflammatory bowel disease. Why is this a challenge?

The main problem is that we aren’t totally sure what causes this disease. This makes it very difficult to find one drug that tackles the root cause. On the other hand, it’s a disease that just keeps on recurring. There might be some improvement, but then things deteriorate again. Nobody knows exactly what triggers these episodes. There may be external factors, like stress. But we can’t say for sure which factors may trigger an episode in someone or even when. This combination of gaps in our knowledge about the cause and what triggers these episodes makes our work much harder.

So where exactly do you start?

Our aim is to relieve the patient’s pain during a relapse and to find a way to reduce the inflammation as quickly as possible. The pain lasts for a long time after a relapse, which causes a great deal of distress for the sufferer. If there was some effective medication, we could use that also reduced the inflammation at the same time, that would be great. When our project started three years ago, we came up with a principle of effectiveness. Then we tested this and tried it out to see if it worked. We then try to fine-tune the chemical molecules that work well, which means that we look at how they are absorbed in the body and tolerated as much as possible and that they do not have any side effects.

Research is groupwork, definitely. That’s something I was not really aware of when I started working.

Does the process run like clockwork?

No. The projects are cyclical. This means that in the preclinical or clinical studies we often find out that the molecule we have been working on in the lab then does things that are not ideal. Then we take another step back and take a look at some other molecules. Often, we also find out things that look exciting for other drugs and the result is yet another new project.

Were there times during your studies where things did not go smoothly? How did you handle these challenges?

I had a bumpy start to university. There was a lot more content and the pace was a lot quicker than it was at school. I really started to wonder just how I would ever manage. I had to take the exam on the topic of instrumental analysis three times. By the way, instrumental analysis is now what I spend most of my time doing at Roche (she laughs). I would have had to leave university if I hadn’t passed the third exam. So, I rolled my sleeves up more and got help from some of the other students, who explained a lot of the content to me. It was a very small programme, as there were only 30 of us on the course. Knowing that everyone else had the same problems as me and that we could help each other, I found that really helpful on my course.

I had a bumpy start to university. So, I rolled my sleeves up more and got help from some of the other students.

You work alongside a laboratory assistant and a chemist. What’s it like working in your team?

I work very closely with the lab assistant. We discuss how to proceed, for example if we’re working on a difficult molecule, which is not easy to dissolve. What approach should we try, what might work and what won’t? The lab assistant then carries out the work and we interpret the results together. I’m in a larger project team with the chemist. As an example, their role is to produce more of the active ingredient, so that we have enough for the clinical phases. Initially we might just produce a few milligrams but later on we may need several kilogrammes. I also work with the chemist on the planning and the strategy for the project, so that we can have a successful transition into the clinical phase.

Can you explain why there is this perception that researchers are lone wolves, even though they actually work in a team most of the time?

I can imagine that we have this perception that those researchers whose ideas changed the world were just individuals. And they also had a certain type of character. In fact, even these great researchers worked in teams. Research is groupwork, definitely. That’s something I was not really aware of when I started working. I never realised until I started working on a project that my job needs other people to do their jobs and everyone else is relying on me to do my job. You can’t just say, right we won’t bother with that this time. It just won’t work. It needs each part to function properly.

It’s worth looking at synthetic routes and using fewer solvents or just those that are not as harmful for the environment.

What do you think is the biggest contribution that chemistry can make in terms of making the world of tomorrow a better place?

I think it’s with issues that relate to protecting the environment. There are some small-scale solutions that are very good replacements for conventional solutions. One niche example from industry is that of synthetic routes, which involves the use of a large amount of organic solvents. This technique is not ideal in terms of the environment, so it’s worth looking at synthetic routes and using fewer solvents or just those that are not as harmful for the environment.

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