Working closely with the global scientific community, our Life Science business sector is developing numerous innovative products and solutions for biotech and pharmaceutical research. The new tools and processes that we offer are helping our customers to capture the potential of genome medicine.
The concept of purity has always been firmly embedded in the biosciences. Emanuel Merck produced basic materials for medicinal products and very successfully supplied colleagues in other pharmacies as well as physicians and chemists. In 1851, he emphasized in a letter to a customer: “I always guarantee you the purity of my preparations.” To this very day, this strong commitment to quality characterizes our work. By providing products for protein research, cell biology, and chemical-based pharmaceuticals, the Life Science business covers the bioprocessing value chain. With more than 300,000 life science products and solutions, Merck provides scientists with state-of-the-art tools and services to enable them to successfully meet their toughest challenges.EXPLORE MORE
For 27 years now, Anja Dedeo has been helping to make this possible. Based at our Danvers site near Boston, the experienced scientist works in technology development, where she focuses on the further development of efficient molecular workflow tools. For instance, she evaluates new technologies in protein and nucleic acid sample preparation, as well as ways to enhance the efficiency of Western blotting, a standard technique for transferring proteins to a blotting membrane. “Our goal is to make laboratory work easier and more efficient through new technologies. We perform hands-on evaluations of these technologies, which can range from early prototype devices, to various reagents, kits or a combination of all,” says Dedeo. She knows that just because a technology appears promising based on the scientific evaluation, commercial viability is not automatically guaranteed. That is why Anja Dedeo highly values collaboration with many different disciplines, for instance with internal departments such as Business Development and Marketing, as well as with academic institutions and other external partners. “In this age of personalized medicine, scientists are looking for new ways to identify disease and treat it with medicines that have the fewest side effects. To support and provide scientists with quality products for this challenging task, we have to precisely understand their needs and pain points,” says Dedeo.
This applies especially to the new possibilities offered by gene therapy. Since the human genome was fully decoded around 15 years ago, a lot has happened in medical research and biotechnology. For instance, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology was developed. With CRISPR, the DNA of all organisms can be edited similarly to a text. Certain gene sequences of a cell can be separated or cut out and replaced as with a pair of scissors. This allows scientists to alter the DNA of plants, animals and humans in a targeted manner, for instance to repair genetic defects and to potentially cure hereditary diseases. “CRISPR can be used to understand the link between a gene and the function of that gene in a cell. Making these tools available to scientists helps them to design and carry out experiments to elucidate the cause of diseases. I have the privilege of working on some of the most exciting technologies in life science,” says Martha Rook, Head of Gene Editing & Novel Modalities in Bedford near Boston. Together with her colleagues and team, Rook focuses on new applications and services for drug development – from basic research to manufacturing processes. For scientists, the genome-editing scissors are relatively easy and economical to use. That’s why numerous researchers around the globe are already applying CRISPR, for instance to cultivate plants that are more resistant or to fight diseases such as AIDS and cancer.
We offer a wide selection of products for genome editing. “Our CRISPR tools can be used for disease modeling, among other things. Cell models deliver important insights for the development of new medicines and side effect testing,” Rook explains. Merck’s growing patent portfolio includes genomic integration. This involves cutting the chromosomal sequence of eukaryotic cells (such as mammalian and plant cells) and inserting an external or donor DNA sequence into those cells using CRISPR. Researchers can thus replace disease-associated mutations with beneficial or functional gene sequences. In addition, Merck has developed an alternative CRISPR genome-editing method called proxy-CRISPR that permits access to previously unreachable cell locations, making CRISPR more efficient, flexible and specific.
The tremendous opportunities offered by gene editing involve a tremendous responsibility. Merck conducts gene editing research in compliance with statutory regulations and careful consideration of ethical standards. For this purpose, we have established the Merck Bioethics Advisory Panel (MBAP) to provide advice and guidance on research work that Merck is involved in (see interview on page 33). The guidelines we have adopted on human stem cell research as well as fertility research are available on our website.EXPLORE MORE
“Ethical responsibility lies with the scientific community.”
Interview with Professor Dr. Jochen Taupitz, a renowned ethics expert, legal scholar at the University of Mannheim, Chairman of the Central German Ethics Council of the German Federal Medical Council, and Member of the Merck Bioethics Advisory Panel
New gene therapy techniques such as CRISPR make it possible to intervene in the genome of plants, animals and humans much more easily, precisely and cost-efficiently. This is a big advantage for crop cultivation and animal breeding – and also for people. That’s because somatic gene therapy can be used to cure people suffering from certain hereditary diseases. And in the distant future, the possibility exists of influencing the genome of a person so that subsequent generations also benefit. Through intervention in the germ line, meaning the genes of early embryos or human egg or sperm cells, it could be possible to spare future human beings of serious hereditary disorders.
Germline gene therapy in humans is presently not justifiable because the techniques are not precise enough yet. It is currently not possible to rule out unexpected off-target effects. However, research work is underway in laboratories in several countries on embryos. National legislation differs considerably. Many countries permit research on embryos for the first 14 days of their development. In Germany, however, this is forbidden. If gene editing becomes more precise and safer, using gene therapy to prevent serious hereditary disease is in my view legitimate – and makes more sense than eliminating embryos as a result of preimplantation diagnosis.
Experts from different disciplines, for example ethicists, lawyers and physicians, and from different countries and cultures discuss ethical aspects of Merck’s research activities and give the company advice, for instance on human stem cell research. For Merck, as a company with operations around the world, it is certainly important to be informed of the global ethical debates, different moral perceptions and legal systems, and to align the company strategy accordingly. Merck implements the recommendation of the MBAP in concrete work processes. Additionally, the company follows clear principles and guidelines that distinctly oppose the potential misuse of gene therapy. After all, ethical responsibility lies with the scientific community.