By Matthias von Herrath | Published September 26 2017
Matthias von Herrath, MD, Vice President of Novo Nordisk’s Diabetes R&D Center in Seattle, is one of the researchers featured in the GOBOLDLY campaign from the biopharmaceutical industry group, PhRMA. GOBOLDLY highlights the value America’s pharmaceutical companies bring to patients, society, and our economy.
In this Q&A, Matthias shares some behind-the-scenes stories about his role with the campaign and what it’s really like to be on the front lines of finding a cure for diabetes.
Why be part of the GOBOLDLY campaign?
I really never imagined I would be doing something like this. It’s really not necessarily my comfort zone but I have noticed how the public’s perception of our industry has changed and not for the better. That is something that we need to take responsibility for and I want to do my part because I believe in the work we do every day to tackle serious diseases and it starts with the science. Our ultimate driver is to make things work for people, so if something doesn’t look very good in the lab, it’s certainly not going to look good for humans at the end of the day. That’s something the pharma industry can do very well. I joined Novo Nordisk about seven years ago, and the experience has been fantastic in terms of the quality of data we can generate and the drive to do our work, which is to fulfill patients’ needs. I want to be a part of telling that story.
Tell us a little more about what motivated you to go into research.
It was actually at a very young age and not in a positive context. When I was eight, I lost my father to a brain aneurism very suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a special influence in my life and I remember how we used to go for walks and how he taught me to ride a bike. It was at that time that I knew that I wanted to be involved in medicine and do something to help people live longer and healthier lives. So, little boys don’t have to say goodbye to their Dads. Additionally, I’ve always had the curiosity and passion for discovering something new, which drives me every day and is the “engine” of my work.
Do you think people understand what a researcher does?
I believe most people don’t fully understand what it means to navigate uncharted territory – it’s not like building a car or doing a bit of work to increase fuel efficiency. The human body is very complex and in that way also wonderful. That’s why I’m really enthusiastic about this campaign. People don’t understand our work and how hard it is. We persist in the lab for a long time and experience many failures. But we persevere because we want to alleviate patient suffering. That’s the reason I went into medicine and research, and to Novo Nordisk - to develop new treatments to help people.
What would you say to people who ask why research takes so long?
Many times our hypotheses are not correct, or for other reasons experiments fail – it takes a lot of trial and error. For clinical translation, primarily we have to protect the patients, which means we first have to do a Phase 1 safety trial, then a Phase 2 efficacy and dosing trial, and then the pivotal Phase 3 trial. Each of these steps can go for several years, and sometimes a drug never gets past Phase 2. Thus, developing a new drug takes many years and brings with it a lot of risk.
Do you think about patients often while you work?
Yes! Diabetes is a difficult disease for patients, with the constant monitoring of blood sugar, food intake and exercise. It’s very difficult to manage with a lot of stress and suffering. That’s why I was very moved by the story of Sara, the patient with type 1 diabetes who is featured with me in the campaign. Hearing Sara’s story, you can understand the tremendous wish all patients have for a pause from the daily challenge of managing their disease. That’s what I think about when I meet with patients with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. You often hear that type 2 diabetes is a disease of lifestyle, but it’s not as if we as humans have such control in our minds that we can influence our lifestyle and choices in a complex environment. We need help; we need treatments for type 2 diabetes and obesity as much as for type 1 diabetes.
One of the ways I stay close to patients is with a children’s day we created once a year when I was a researcher in La Jolla, California. On that day, children, teenagers and their parents come to see the latest research progress. During this day, there are important scientific and logistic updates for all; the families can ask questions and the children also get to “play” researcher for a day if they wish. This event was inspired by a very close friend of mine in La Jolla who raised a daughter with type 1 diabetes, and I still go to this event to remind me why I do this work.
If patients knew more about the work you do, what do you think would get them really excited?
I think people would really get excited about the number of avenues we’re going down to tackle diabetes. For example, we’re looking at stem cells with the hope of developing a future cure, we’re seeing if we can immunize people against type 2 diabetes, and we’re creating a combination therapy to help prevent type 1 diabetes by addressing the immune and metabolic system. I think we are really at the forefront and cutting edge to make a difference here.
When it comes to the scientific work you do, what are your greatest frustrations or challenges?
The biggest challenge is the lack of sufficiently robust and reproducible data to pressure test published ideas or one’s own new ideas. One of the reasons I joined Novo Nordisk was due to our ability to very rigorously evaluate new concepts and findings and comparably to be able to pick the “winners.” This is a privilege that we only have in larger pharma companies where we have the ability to choose and develop or license the most promising therapies for diabetes. Additionally, one of the most important challenges we face is taking a critical look at data and dealing with the frustration and disappointment that naturally occur when things do not work as one had hoped, learning from that “negative” data and using it to generate positive energy forward. I think, however, that our team tackles this well, and we have a lot of forward-moving energy in our unit – something I cherish above everything.
How do you deal with a setback in the lab?
Most days I wake up happy, energized and early, because many of my colleagues work in Denmark. But if I’ve had a setback in my research, I clear my head by being with my children, playing my violin or going for a bike ride.
What’s it like to be part of a campaign shoot in New York?
It’s a lot more fast-paced and hectic than the lab, that's for sure. I gained an appreciation of all that goes into it watching the wardrobe people, photographers, producers, and directors in action. The team was very professional and it was fun to interact with people who do completely different work from mine. At the same time, I was energized to see how many of my peers shared the view that we have a story to tell. We have hearts, passions, and motivations that people don’t get to see every day because we’re working in labs, with colleagues, and with petri dishes. It was very motivating to be with other scientists who share my viewpoint and pride in the work we do.
Any secrets from the set you can share?
It was rather serious most of the day, but it’s pretty funny to see yourself photographed in many different types of “fashionable’ safety goggles. There also were a lot of wardrobe changes before finally finding the “right” shirt – I never knew how important a shirt could be or how many different shades of blue there are.
Did you get to meet Sara, the patient in the campaign with you?
The patients were not there with us that day but I did see her video interview. Her dad recently reached out via LinkedIn and wrote a very nice message in appreciation of our work and dedication. I’ve written back and hope we can meet some day. Until then, I promised Sara I would continue doing my best to make a difference for patients like her.
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