James Merson, global therapeutic area head for Infectious Diseases at Janssen Research & Development, believes that through continued advancements in science “we can change the trajectory of health for humanity and strive to make infectious diseases an issue of the past”

What is your background and current role? 

As a PhD scientist, trained in microbiology and immunology, I’ve devoted my career to discovering medicines and vaccines that prevent and treat a variety of acute and chronic diseases. In my current role as Global Therapeutic Area Head for Infectious Diseases, Janssen Research & Development, I lead a global team focused on doing just that.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

I oversee the research and development of novel small and large molecule medicines, therapeutic vaccines and immunomodulators aiming to prevent, treat or cure infectious diseases. At Janssen, we have a deep focus on the particularly challenging and most prevalent disease areas of respiratory infections, HIV and hepatitis B viral (HBV) infection.

What is a key frustration of your job?

One of the greatest challenges in my role is coordinating teams working across 15 time zones. But this challenge is far outweighed by the benefit of having the best minds brought around the table every day. None of the science we are pursuing would be possible without the diversity of our global team, able to generate original solutions and innovate in our fight against infectious diseases.

Why the interest in infectious disease?

The world has made extraordinary progress in combating infectious diseases and much of this can be attributed to the evolution of science, notably vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals. But despite this progress, every year around 15 million people die from infectious diseases, millions more are hospitalised, and the health burden to society continues. Unmet medical needs in all ages and all nations have yet to be fully addressed. We are still without a cure for some of the most life-threatening chronic infectious such as HIV and HBV, and acute respiratory infections by viruses and bacteria are largely underestimated.

I believe through continued advancements in science, we can change the trajectory of health for humanity and strive to make infectious diseases an issue of the past.

What do you think could have the most impact on improving R&D success rates in the field?

Finding the right talent is essential. The right people with a strong background and passion for innovation will be able to take science out of its traditional context and apply it to new areas. We know that great success is being achieved in oncology where immunotherapies are being used to effectively reset the immune system and cure patients of cancer. These learnings are now being effectively transferred to research in other diseases areas, such as HIV and HBV.

To enable this cross-fertilisation, it is important that our teams are provided with the right environment and the right resources to harness the perspectives of various disciplines. That is something I’m deeply focused on and how I believe we’ll solve some of the most challenging problems in infectious disease.

If you could highlight a single thing that would make the biggest impact on fighting infectious disease around the globe, what would it be?

While we know that an end-to-end approach is required, vaccination certainly has the biggest potential to help us fight infectious diseases.

As the field of vaccinology continues to rapidly evolve, so does our understanding of how the immune system responds to infectious diseases. We need to capitalise on that knowledge and focus on how we generate state-of-the-art vaccines that reflect our understanding of neutralising immune responses against each pathogen.

We also need to continue to increase our knowledge base. We now know more about HIV and HBV than ever before, but there remain many infectious diseases where we need to delve more deeply.

Which of the infectious diseases do you believe poses the biggest threat to the population of Europe?

Influenza absolutely poses the biggest threat right now. There is a real potential of a pandemic. In 1918, the ‘Spanish Flu’ outbreak caused around 50 million deaths. Just imagine if that was to occur again in today’s globally mobile world.

And as temperatures continue to increase globally, Europe also runs the risk of becoming susceptible to vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue. These diseases, currently endemic to Asia and Africa, may soon travel to other regions of the world due to climate change. So, we can’t dismiss this threat either.

What do you consider to be the most exciting scientific development in the fight against infectious disease?

Our increased understanding of chronic viral infections like HBV is most exciting to me. As we come to understand the interaction of the virus with the host, we can begin to lay out a road map for choosing multiple mechanisms of action for potential use in combination.  This offers us the real potential to achieve a functional ‘cure for this disease, which affects around 300 million people.

What are your goals for the future?

For those diseases which continue to increase in incidence – such as HBV and HIV – I would like to see the incidence start to decrease in my lifetime. Despite all the advances in science, the incidence is still rising, and I want to play a role in turning that around.

In addition, I want to help reposition vaccination at the forefront of overcoming and preventing diseases. Despite the successes of smallpox and polio, we’re still struggling to overcome some major infectious diseases such as HIV, HBV and influenza, and I want to see, and be a part of, that shift.

What keeps you awake at night?

The speed at which we can make a difference is what weighs on me. Collectively, in industry, academia and beyond, we have so many resources. Yet what often hamstrings us is the multiple perspectives on how we can provide the most impactful solutions. We need to collaborate and align on the best science. Then, move in the right direction together.

If you could invite anyone (alive or dead) over for dinner, who would it be and why?

I have always wanted to have a conversation with molecular biologist Francis Crick. Crick, along with two colleagues, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for discovering the double helix molecular structure of DNA. Aside from deducing the structure of DNA, he was a leading light in deciphering the genetic code and understanding how it controlled protein synthesis. He had an extraordinary capacity of taking information from diverse sources to either prove or disprove the leading gene control hypotheses of the day. His research laid the foundation for so much further discovery in this field; a true legend.