I’m inspired by the thrill of discovery…by the ability to help people.

Alan Northrup

Alan is an inventor with a purpose. He invents new medicines. And, for him, it’s personal.

“I lost my mother to advanced cancer several years ago, and that motivates me to make a difference for patients just like her,” says Alan. “As I sat by her bedside and went to all her chemotherapy treatments, I had an inside look at the challenges of modern medical care in oncology. Being able to do something about that, there’s a very strong impact.”

Alan’s experience continues to be a driving force in his quest to invent medicines.

“I want to help people who don’t have options because I believe all people should have the opportunity to have a healthy, long and happy life.”

Invention takes teamwork

Making medicine is a very complex endeavor.

Researchers start by identifying a biological target and answering many questions, such as: What are we trying to accomplish? Who is the patient? What is the molecular mechanism by which we can help those patients? How do we turn that mechanism into a molecule that can productively, constructively interfere with that biology?

Alan’s team, the discovery chemistry group, is responsible for inventing the active pharmaceutical ingredient: the structure of the molecule that eventually gets placed into a pill and sold to patients.

“Every molecule that we make has never been made before. And, we’re trying to improve upon the molecules that have come before to make them more potent, selective and effective…and safer. To do that, we need to deeply understand what the issue is, translate that into a new structure and then make that new structure,” explains Alan.

The process requires multiple players and many different areas of expertise.

“Drug discovery is definitely a team sport,” says Alan. “One of the advantages of working for a company like MSD is that we have experts in all of these different fields needed to help us solve these complex problems. Together we can do things that are much greater than each of us as individuals.”

Experiencing the ah-ha moments

It is estimated that of five thousand compounds tested, approximately five will appear promising enough to pursue as a potential new drug.

“Science requires a lot of perseverance,” reflects Alan. “Most days are filled with a lack of success, but we learn every day and get better.”

It’s the anticipation and thrill of the “ah-ha” moment – when they finally figure out how to modify a structure to make a safer or more effective medicine – that helps keep the team going.

And, patients are at the core of the team’s perseverance.

“When we get feedback from patients telling us what the medicines could do to help them, and the realization comes that this could help other patients, perhaps thousands of patients who seek a similar benefit — that’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Establishing cutting-edge research facility in south San Francisco

Alan’s rewarding experience helping establish the company’s Boston facility in 2004 is what motivated him to jump at the opportunity to help start a new site in South San Francisco in 2017.

“When we started the Boston facility, I was one of about 20 people in the chemistry organization. Fast forward 15 years, and it’s now an established research site with all the capabilities to make a medicine. Over that time there, I’ve helped contribute to a number of programs – oncology, immunology and cardio metabolic.”

The new South San Francisco site will prove to be a vital piece of MSD's research network.

“We put a lot of care and thoughtfulness into setting up research because we’re passionate about being cutting edge. That’s why we’re in Boston, San Francisco and London – areas of high biomedical innovation with researchers at top universities, a booming venture capital biotech scene,” explains Alan. “We’re able to attract amazing talent to help make the next generation of medicines. Building these new sites is critical to expanding our capabilities and growing our network.”

It’s an incredible time to be in discovery research, according to Alan.

“I’m excited about the improvement in information that we’ve experienced in discovery research over the last decade. We have a lot more data that can help us make decisions and inform the experiments we’re making.”

Why MSD?

Alan says MSD’s mission to bring medicine to the people drew him to the company.

“I chose to work here to be able to invent new medicines. And, those medicines will outlast us. That is our gift to humanity: to be able to deliver new medicines that will help not only ourselves, and our loved ones, but millions of patients worldwide for decades.”

Name: Alan Northrup

Title: Executive Director, Discovery Chemistry, South San Francisco

Education: A.B., Chemistry, Harvard University; Ph.D., Chemistry, California Institute of Technology

Favorite Downtime Activity: hiking, camping

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