Pioneering better chemical reactions

MSD scientists help unlock the mystery of a key reaction and refine how molecular compounds are built

May 4, 2023

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Developing a new potential medicine is as much art as science. Chemists must design and create molecules that are tailored to interact with specific regions of the target protein. There are numerous recipes that enable the creation of the desired compound or compound family. Still, it’s sometimes a mystery how it all works. At least, that was the case for an often-used reaction until MSD researchers, working in collaboration with others, took a closer look.

‘Building a key that fits into a lock’

The reaction — decarboxylative coupling — uses two catalysts and can be a fickle process. “We know to expect a certain result, but how it happens is often an enigma,” said Spencer Dreher, senior principal scientist, medicinal chemistry, MSD Research Laboratories (MRL).

Dreher and other talented MRL chemists, including Shane Krska, distinguished scientist, discovery chemistry, worked with scientists in 2021 Nobel Laureate David MacMillan’s lab at Princeton University to learn more about this specific reaction. MacMillan, who is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University, has had a close working relationship with MSD spanning many years.

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“When we’re building molecules for a particular target, we like to say we’re building a key that fits into a lock."

Shane Krska

Distinguished scientist, discovery chemistry, MRL

“What makes decarboxylative coupling an interesting and powerful reaction is that the result is three dimensional, versus flat, which helps when building a specific shape,” said Krska. “Also, the primary reactants can come in many different configurations, so the number of combinations that can be generated is appealing.”

The team used a systematic approach to map the effect of over 700 diverse molecules that might interact with decarboxylative coupling, using a nanoscale high throughput experimentation technique pioneered at our company. This technique allows the scientists to complete the many reactions and test for results in an automated system using tiny amounts of reagents, robotics and analytical techniques.

Most of the reagents tested were detrimental to the reaction, but one stood out and surprised everyone — phthalimide. “As far as we know, phthalimide is not used as an additive in other reactions, so we were very surprised to see it benefit this reaction,” said Krska.

Understanding the decarboxylative coupling reaction

Once the team identified this key additive, they set out to understand how it worked. They were able to show it stabilized the catalyst, keeping it present and part of the reaction for a longer time, improving yields. They then ran the reaction with many different coupling partners to prove it worked across most reactions.

Not only has the team defined a predictable process for decarboxylative coupling, but they also have shown how their additive mapping process can refine other reactions.

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“I feel like we were able to push the boundaries of scientific understanding in a very fundamental way. This is something that will be beneficial across our industry.”

Spencer Dreher

Senior principal scientist, medicinal chemistry, MRL

The team’s research was recently published in the journal ‘Science’

Learn more and explore careers in R&D at MSD



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Health awareness

From stigma to strength: HIV activist from Lebanon shares his story

Elie Ballan discusses learning about his HIV status and his work to inspire others living with HIV

April 27, 2023

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The first doctor Elie Ballan saw after learning he was HIV positive didn’t shake his hand. He faced judgment from the few people he opened up to about his HIV status and wrestled with feelings of shame. Since then, Ballan has fought through the stigma he faced and found strength in sharing his story as an HIV activist. Ballan, who lives in Lebanon, also works at a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to supporting the community.

More than 38 million people globally were living with HIV in 2021. Ballan’s story is one of the many stories that inspire us to continue pushing the boundaries of science and help build a better future for all those affected by HIV.

Watch Ballan share his story in the video above.

Learn more about our commitment to HIV treatments and prevention through the years.


Our Q1 2023 earnings report

April 27, 2023

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MSD’s Q1 2023 results reflect continued strong underlying performance across key growth drivers, particularly in oncology and vaccines. Our company announced Q1 worldwide sales of $14.5 billion.

“Inspired by our commitment to bring bold science forward to address critical unmet patient needs, we began 2023 with significant advancements across our innovative pipeline,” said Robert M. Davis, chairman and chief executive officer, MSD. “Our first-quarter results are a reflection of the focused execution of our science-led strategy, strong performance across our key growth drivers, continued momentum commercially and operationally, and — most importantly — the collective and dedicated efforts of our colleagues around the world. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, and we will continue to move with speed and agility to deliver value for patients and shareholders, now and well into the future.”

MSD anticipates full-year 2023 worldwide sales to be between $57.7 billion and $58.9 billion.

Take a look at the infographic below for more details on Q1 2023 results.

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MSD Q1 2023 infographic
Health awareness

Supporting colleagues working with cancer

There are so many unknowns after a cancer diagnosis — whether or not you receive support at work shouldn’t be one of them

April 18, 2023

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Chet Kitchen had no idea how his battle with cancer would affect his work. Our colleague of 23 years and director of global regulatory policy wasn’t used to missing big meetings and presentations for hospital visits and oncology appointments.

“It’s a constant balance between trying to focus on work and trying to focus on your health,” said Kitchen. “That’s where having a good company to support you and colleagues who appreciate you and look out for you can make the difference.”

Kitchen is a head and neck cancer survivor. After following his doctor’s treatment plan for stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, he was told there was no evidence of disease. But a year later, the cancer returned, and he was put on a new treatment plan.

Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck makes up about 90% of all cases of head and neck cancer. Head and neck cancer can begin in or around the throat, voice box, sinuses, mouth and salivary glands. Symptoms may include a lump in the neck or sore in the mouth or throat that does not heal or may be painful, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice.

Impact of cancer on careers

“One of the most important things a company can do to support a colleague living with cancer is to listen and understand their needs,” Kitchen said.

“To have the opportunity to take time off was so important,” he said. “My company gave me the flexibility to take care of my emotional needs by allowing me to focus on my health when I needed to, but also to focus on work when I didn’t want to think about cancer.”

Ongoing employment and return to work may help promote a sense of normalcy and control for cancer patients.

“Being diagnosed with cancer may hurt your career or make it more challenging,” Kitchen said.

“But working for our company really invigorated me. I can really appreciate the work that we do and how it impacts patients.”

Why we support the Working with Cancer pledge

At MSD, we’re dedicated to supporting people living and working with cancer around the world. We’re proud to be an accredited CEO Cancer Gold Standard employer and a founding member of the Working with Cancer pledge to help provide a more open, supportive and recovery-forward culture at work for cancer patients like Kitchen.

Chet Kitchen

Today, Kitchen’s cancer is in remission, but that doesn’t mean his patient journey is over.

“Even though you’re not physically battling cancer, it never really leaves you because it’s always somewhere in your mind,” he said. “But one of the things that’s really helped me emotionally through my survivorship is sharing my story.”

Health awareness

Helping protect health from birth to adulthood

Vaccination is one of the many ways you can help protect your loved ones against certain potentially serious diseases every day

April 17, 2023

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Vaccines are one of the greatest public health success stories in history

They help protect against more than 20 potentially life-threatening diseases.

We recognize and support the many global health stakeholders, including the World Health Organization, for their efforts in raising awareness about the importance of vaccination and helping prevent infectious diseases around the world.

“Immunization is a global health and development success story…helping people of all ages live longer, healthier lives…It’s also one of the best health investments money can buy. Vaccines are also critical to the prevention and control of infectious disease outbreaks [and] underpin global health security…”

  • World Health Organization, 2023

Broader vaccination coverage along with other public health measures have eradicated smallpox and significantly decreased the incidence of other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Vaccine equity is a global challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered unprecedented disruptions to vaccination programs around the world, resulting in the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccination rates in approximately 30 years.  

The pandemic also revealed underlying health inequities and reminded us of the importance of preserving trust in and advancing equitable access to vaccines.

Global vaccination coverage dropped 5% between 2019 and 2021, creating risk for additional outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the future.

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of completely unvaccinated children increased by 5 million.

More than 1.5 million people worldwide die from vaccine-preventable diseases each year. In 2018, ~700,000 children under age 5 were estimated to have died from vaccine-preventable diseases, and a staggering 99% of these children had lived in low- and middle-income countries.

Recovering vaccination rates together

Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to reimagine the role we all can play.

At MSD, our broad portfolio of vaccines helps prevent diseases affecting individuals around the world and across all stages of life, from infancy through older adulthood.

But, we can’t be successful alone. That’s why we are working with a variety of stakeholders to help recover vaccination rates impacted by the pandemic, build trust in vaccination and enable equitable global access to vaccination services for everyone who can benefit from them. Our approach includes global, national and local engagement.

We’re also encouraging individuals to speak with their health care provider about vaccines that may be recommended for them or their families. Through our work in vaccines, we are committed to helping protect people today and for generations to come.

Grandmother giving her granddaughter a hug

MSD and its legacy companies have a 130+ year history of innovation and commitment to helping prevent disease by discovering, developing, supplying and delivering vaccines.

To keep pace with the ever-evolving disease landscape, we go where the need is to find new ways to address complex public health problems. We continue to invest in groundbreaking research and breakthrough technologies to help protect against potentially life-altering vaccine-preventable diseases.


Individualized neoantigen therapies: exploring one medicine for one patient

Scientists are researching new ways to help train the immune system to fight cancer

April 13, 2023

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Over the past decade, immunotherapy has transformed our understanding of how the immune system can be used to help fight some types of cancer. However, for the last 50 years, scientists have been researching how we could potentially use vaccines to treat cancer — another investigational approach to harness the immune system to help recognize and destroy cancer cells — with little success.

Now we’re looking at a potential therapy that is building upon the learnings of immunotherapy trials from the past and incorporating that into an individualized cancer approach that’s specific to a patient’s own tumor. Researchers are currently exploring the potential of individualized neoantigen therapies to help fight cancer.

Cancer research is becoming more personalized

Cancer is a result of the body’s own cells undergoing mutations which create abnormal proteins in cancer cells, known as neoantigens, that are not usually seen in normal cells. These mutations are unique to each person’s tumor, so that’s one of the reasons why patients who have been diagnosed with the same type of cancer and who have received the same type of treatment may have different responses.

As the treatment of cancer continues to evolve and advance, researchers are focusing on more individualized approaches. This includes a new area of research into individualized neoantigen therapies that use information from a person’s tumor biopsy sample to help develop a therapy unique to their tumor’s mutations.

MSD's Dr. Jane Healy

“This area of research has really captured our imagination of what’s possible in the development of cancer therapeutics.”

  • Dr. Jane Healy
    Associate vice president, oncology global clinical development, MSD Research Laboratories

In collaboration with Moderna, we’re studying this area of research in an effort to advance more individualized approaches to help improve outcomes for people living with cancer.

Learn more about individualized neoantigen therapies

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Health awareness

Understanding melanoma: The signs and risk factors

Learn more about how to detect and help prevent melanoma

April 13, 2023

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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer. Characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells, melanoma accounts for approximately 1.7% of new cancer cases worldwide.

Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, including areas without sun exposure, but it’s more likely to start in certain locations, like the face and neck, legs (most common in women), and chest and back (most common in men).

Melanoma common sites

The risk of melanoma generally increases with age and incidence is greater among older populations. Melanoma is not uncommon, even among patients younger than 30 years, and is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially young women.

In most areas of the world, melanoma diagnosis rates have been rising over the past few decades

In 2020, it was estimated that there were more than

new melanoma cases worldwide

Signs of cancerous moles

A new spot on the skin or a spot that is changing in size, shape or color, or one that looks different, is an important warning sign of melanoma and should be checked by a doctor. The ABCDE rule outlines the characteristics of moles that may be melanoma and is helpful guidance for monitoring skin changes:

Illustration A is for Asymmetry

A is for Asymmetry

One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.

Illustration B is for Border

B is for Border

The edges of the mole are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.

Illustration C is for Color

C is for Color

The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white or blue.

D is for Diameter

The spot is more than 6 millimeters across (about 1/4 inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.

E is for Evolving

The mole is changing in size, shape or color.

Any of these warning signs should be discussed with a doctor, especially if you feel you are at risk for melanoma.

Risk factors of melanoma

There are many risk factors and causes of melanoma, including:

  • Ultraviolet light on your skin, such as from the sun or a tanning bed (the most common risk factor for melanoma).
  • Age — melanoma is more common in older people, but younger people are also at risk. Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 years (especially among women).
  • Moles — having atypical moles, many moles and/or large moles.
  • Personal or family history — melanoma can be genetic and having a relative with melanoma can increase your risk.
  • Fair skin or a fair complexion, a lot of freckles and/or light-colored hair and/or eyes.

Ways to lower your risk of melanoma

Melanoma can’t be entirely prevented, but there are ways to lower your risk. The number one way to lower risk is to protect against UV rays, which damage the DNA of skin cells and impact the genes that control skin cell growth. The top source of UV rays is the sun. That’s why it’s important to practice sun safety every time you go outside, even on cloudy days when UV rays can still shine through. Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

Seek shade icon
Seek shade

UV exposure is greatest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you need to be outside during these hours, seek shade — under a tree, an umbrella or an awning.

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Wear a hat

Try to find a hat with a wide brim — at least 2 or 3 inches wide — to protect your face, top of the head, ears and neck.

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Cover up

Choose clothing with a tight knit or weave, and avoid shirts that you can see through. Remember, if light is getting through, then UV rays are too.

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Use sunscreen

For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

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Wear sunglasses

Protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Pick a pair of sunglasses that will block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.


In our commitment to R&D, the numbers speak for themselves

We follow the science where we can make the greatest difference

March 22, 2023

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Our scientists are revolutionizing how we discover and develop medicines and vaccines to address unmet medical needs, guiding invention in the areas of oncology, vaccines, infectious diseases, cardio-metabolic disorders, neuroscience and more. 

With a science-led but portfolio-driven approach to our pipeline, we use the power of leading-edge science to save and improve the lives of humans and animals around the world. And, that’s why we’re expanding and investing in our research and discovery efforts.

Here’s a look at how we got there:

2022 by the numbers

four MSD scientists in a lab

$13.5 billion

Our research and development investment

MSD woman scientist working in a lab


Employees driving our research activities

illustration of man and woman looking at flying papers


Publications by our scientists in peer-reviewed journals

health care provider talking with patient


Patients enrolled in our clinical trials at more than 21,000+ sites worldwide

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Countries around the world where we are conducting clinical trials

lab work


Late-stage clinical trials around the world

two men shaking hands


New major acquisitions to broaden our reach


MSD colleagues talking in meeting


Significant business development deals to enhance our pipeline

Woman MSD scientists in a lab
Our pipeline

We follow the science where we can make the greatest difference, now and in the future.

man and woman MSD scientists

Are you interested in a career in R&D?

Our people

Women who are leading the way

From researching new medicines to fighting for health equity, these colleagues are making an impact around the world

March 15, 2023

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Accelerating our groundbreaking research: Denarra Simmons

Simmons, a senior scientist, is driven by a desire to help people and make a difference in society. “When you find out a medicine you worked on has helped so many people, you feel really special and you know all the work has been worthwhile,” she said. Read more



Championing gender equality in science: Small molecule process research & development team

Women scientists have historically been underrepresented in the field of process research and development — the space between drug discovery and manufacturing. However, over the past seven years, the percentage of women on this team has nearly doubled and continues to grow. Read more

4 women MSD scientists


Helping to close gaps in care for underserved communities: Josette Gbemudu

Gbemudu is motivated to ensure everyone has the chance to be as healthy as possible. As an executive director of health equity and social determinants of health, she takes pride in giving a voice to those who may not traditionally have had a seat at the table. Read more



Putting patients at the heart of innovation: Janethe de Oliveira Pena

Far-off galaxies and distant stars first sparked Pena’s imagination, but she eventually found her calling delving into the mysteries within the human body. Today, she’s working to advance research in the field of pulmonary arterial hypertension. Read more

Janethe Pena


Fighting for health equity: Carmen Villar

For as long as she can remember, Villar wanted a purpose-driven career that allowed her to give back to the community. As vice president for social business innovation, she leads a team working to do just that, saying, “We ask ourselves ‘How do we better support communities and co-create the work that will help solve challenges?’”
Read more

Carmen Villar at the Concordia Annual Summit


Building a more inclusive workforce: Celeste Warren

As vice president of diversity and inclusion, Warren leads our efforts to create an environment of belonging, engagement, equity and empowerment so that together, we can help ensure better health outcomes for patients. “When every single employee embraces a mindset welcoming diversity and inclusion and can fully appreciate the experiences of others, better discussions, decisions and outcomes will certainly follow,” she said. Read more

Celeste Warren


Developing women leaders: Nicoletta Luppi

Luppi, the first woman to serve as managing director of our company in Italy, is committed to developing women leaders and achieving gender diversity. Thanks to her leadership, we were one of the first companies in the country to eliminate the gender pay gap. Read more

Nicoletta Luppi sitting in her office
Health awareness

How early detection of kidney cancer can help save lives

An oncologist and a patient advocate discuss the challenges of renal cell carcinoma and their hopes for the future of cancer care

March 15, 2023

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When Liz Leff, an otherwise healthy woman in her 30s, went in for her annual checkup eight years ago, cancer was the last thing on her mind. But that routine checkup set her on a path with renal cell carcinoma (RCC), the most common type of kidney cancer.

The testing that led to Leff’s early kidney cancer diagnosis

Liz Leff and her daughter
Leff and her daughter

“My primary care physician saw microscopic traces of blood in my urine — which I was told isn’t uncommon — and suggested a follow-up appointment with a urologist,” she said. “I was reluctant to go in for testing for something that seemed insignificant, but my doctor pushed me to have it checked. I’m so glad I did. A renal ultrasound showed a tumor on my kidney.”

The World Health Organization estimated that there were approximately 431,000 new diagnoses of kidney cancer, which includes RCC, in 2020 across the globe. RCC occurs when cancerous, or malignant, cells form in tiny tubes in the kidneys, known as tubules.

One of the difficulties around early diagnosis is that unlike breast or cervical cancers, there’s not a preventive care screening test for RCC. Kidney cancer is often found during abdominal imaging tests for other complaints,” said Dr. Rodolfo Perini, an associate vice president who leads the RCC clinical team at MSD Research Laboratories.

Leff’s experience is not typical, as at the time of diagnosis she was young. Additionally, she was not experiencing any symptoms at the time of her diagnosis.

“For most people, common symptoms — like persistent pain in your side or loss of appetite — can be vague and are often brushed off. By the time they become more severe, disease may have spread,” said Dr. Perini. “That’s why it’s so important to listen to your body and share anything you’re experiencing with your doctor. Early detection is associated with better outcomes.”

Kidney cancer causes and care

Risk factors for renal cell carcinoma include smoking, being overweight or obese, having high blood pressure, having a family history, and having a history of exposure to environmental toxins. The risk of kidney cancer may also be greater for Black men and for people over the age of 45.

“The research landscape has changed, and we’ve seen improvements in the care of kidney cancer over the years, but it’s not good enough,” said Dr. Perini.

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"We still have work ahead, but with the progress that’s been made, there’s reason to be excited for the future.”

— Dr. Rodolfo Perini

Life as an advocate after experiencing kidney cancer

Leff is also hopeful about the future of care in kidney cancer. Following successful treatment, she joined the National Kidney Foundation, where she draws on her own experiences to better advocate for others living with kidney cancer.

“When I first heard the word ‘cancer,’ I was terrified. I felt like I was in this alone with no place to go. I don’t want others to go through what I went through,” Leff said. “From when I was diagnosed to now, there’s a lot more information and support available.”

“My ultimate hope is that continued research, plus more resources and education for patients, may help lead to earlier diagnoses and better outcomes for more people.”

— Liz Leff