The great American writer Toni Morrison said that to be a great writer you should seek holiness, be open and embrace failure. Writing, like many art forms, requires that you put the pieces together to create a new world, oftentimes by thinking beyond what has been done before. In this way, scientific research is not that different and can be seen as an art form all its own.
Roche Medicinal Chemist Hasane Ratni made a discovery that broke away from much of the conventional thinking of how a molecule should look and perform in order to be successful. He worked together on a team of boundary-pushing scientists and researchers in the quest to find better treatment for those living with Rare Diseases. Many of these diseases greatly affect babies, and the urgency to find therapies can push any determined scientist to explore ambitious new methods of discovery.
“There are several basic medicinal chemistry rules to make a medicine that people are taught in school and in all the textbooks,” says Hasane, smiling. “And to be successful here, I had to break three of those fundamental rules.”
Hasane Ratni grew up with his three brothers in France, the son of a busy housewife and a car factory worker. He knew early that his passion was firmly in science. He graduated with a PhD in 2001 in Switzerland, followed by a post doctorate in Tokyo, Japan, and has been a scientist for many years.
“I always knew I would be a scientist and thank my parents for their support to let me follow my path, even though it was much different from theirs,” he says.
There are certain traits that Hasane thinks are important to be a great scientist: trust your team, be courageous and believe that the impossible can be done.
“You must believe,” he says. “You must be really convinced that it will work, especially if you are trying new things. If you start having doubts, you’ve already lost the battle. It is easy to terminate a project because you can always find a reason to stop. Instead, the challenge is finding one single reason to keep it moving. Whatever is happening, you must find that one reason and believe you will make it work.”
Certain experiences have helped Hasane continue believing in the impossible. Once, he had the opportunity to meet several patients during meetings with a patient organisation. This is not common for research scientists, who spend much of the time in laboratories working to find solutions to help patients being cared for by doctors. “For the first time, my work became real. It is not just numbers and graphs - not that we don’t know what those numbers mean - but these figures on paper transformed into actual people living with their disease! That meeting gave me the confidence and drive to know we can make it. To believe. To keep pushing. And finally, to be successful.”
People often imagine the solitary scientist working long hours in quiet labs. While this may sometimes be true, scientific projects are never completely in the hands of one person. All scientific undertakings have teams behind - and in front - of them to help make any discoveries and creations successful.
“For me, making a medicine is the biggest team sport in the world,” Hasane explains. “To make it work, you have to trust your colleagues. If your biologist recommends you to rely on a specific in vitro assay to optimize your compounds, or your toxicologist advises you to optimize against a different gene to get a better safety profile, I just trust them. If you spend your time looking at what everyone else is doing, who will do what you should be doing? I trust my colleagues with my eyes closed.”
According to Webster’s Dictionary, courage is the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. But all the courage in the world won’t mean anything if you don’t have the support needed to allow you to keep trying.
“In scientific research, failure can come at any time but it cannot define you,” says Hasane. He knows the pain of working on an unsuccessful molecule that didn’t make it out through the clinic. “It was disappointing when our first candidate was stopped, but we were supported to try another approach. Our management and environment made it safe to be courageous and try again - even to fail again, although luckily we did not!” Hasane wasn’t discouraged and continued his quest for providing life-changing therapies to patients. And the work paid off. He was part of a team who successfully invented a molecule that might help SMA patients and families.
It’s traits like belief, trust, courage that truly make a difference in drug discovery and the advancement of scientific research. With the future of medicine looking more personalised and more fantastical, we need more visionary scientists who choose to believe in the impossible.
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