The drive to find novel therapeutic options

An interview with Dr. Min Lu, Associate Principal Scientist at Merck & Co., Inc.

Dr. Min Lu received his PhD in chemistry from Nanyang Technological University in 2011 and was a 2012 finalist of the Reaxys PhD Prize. After his post-doctoral research at The Scripps Research Institute and Rice University, he joined the Discovery Chemistry team at Merck Research Laboratories in Boston as a Senior Research Scientist in 2015. In 2018, he was promoted to Associate Principal Scientist.

Portrait of Dr. Min Lu | Elsevier

What are your primary responsibilities as Associate Principal Scientist in Discovery Chemistry?

My role in discovery chemistry is to collaborate with multidisciplinary and cross-functional teams to develop innovative solutions through rapid assessment of structure–activity relationships (SAR) for novel molecular designs. We leverage these solutions to streamline the design cycles and expedite the delivery of novel therapeutic substances to the clinic.

I’m also involved in early-stage efforts to identify and validate novel disease targets corresponding to significant unmet medical needs.

Last but certainly not least, I’ve been given the opportunity to be involved in talent development and recruitment roles. Serving as a mentor has been incredibly fulfilling!

Tell us about your involvement in the webinar Accelerate drug discovery by turning data into actionable insights.

The focus of the webinar is on inventing better molecules faster. It’s about the need to identify the best chemical starting points in order to identify high-quality tools for new biology exploration; we leverage integrated databases of available data and emerging high-throughput in silico methodologies as a differentiating science.

I specifically address the importance of harmonizing the breadth of information available from pharmaceutical research and the impact of modeling and informatics strategies in accelerating the discovery and progression of new drug-like substances.

What do you usually use Reaxys for?

I use Reaxys for everything related to experimentally measured data: chemical compounds, reactions and bioactivities. Universal access to all relevant information on an integrated platform is extremely convenient and intuitive, and I find it particularly handy with respect to the patent literature.

I use Reaxys for everything related to experimentally measured data: chemical compounds, reactions and bioactivities.

What new developments in chemistry excite you the most and why?

The innovations in the field of high-throughput experimentation (HTE) as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning are remarkable. They enable incredible leaps in both discovery and process chemistry. Collectively, this allows chemists to not only design a large number of reactions in a short period of time, but also to obtain data-rich insights in order to identify optimal reaction conditions.

Recent advances in computational chemistry and machine learning are delivering real impact in areas such as new ligand design, target prediction, and even new reaction discovery.

What spurred your transition from academia to industry in 2015 and what advice would you give to someone thinking about taking a similar path today?

Quite frankly, I followed a career path of curiosity-driven research towards academia since I was quite young. The epiphany came shortly after I moved with Professor Nicolaou’s group to Rice University, which happens to be in the heart of Texas Medical Center in Houston.

The career pivot towards the pharmaceutical industry came after I witnessed a close friend’s courageous but sadly unsuccessful battle with a rare form of cancer, as well as the battles of many other patients. My friend ultimately succumbed to the disease due to a “lack of treatment options”.

Fortunately, during my doctoral studies, my research had been focused on asymmetric catalysis, while my tenure with Professor Nicolaou allowed me to expand my skillset into the area of total synthesis. This collective knowledge and these experiences turned out to be quite helpful for a candidate seeking a career in pharmaceutical industry.

I realize that the job market nowadays is at a quite different stage to that of 2015. Nevertheless, my advice would be to be prepared for both career paths and follow your heart when a decision needs to be made.

From your experience, what are the three main benefits of working in industry?

I’ll try to describe the benefits in three categories that are essentially mindset, skillset, and toolset.

Safety and priority are pretty much at the center of everyday work and communications in industry, which really helps ensure that we’ll be able to deliver on our shared mission: to discover, develop and provide innovative products and services that save and improve lives around the world.

Continuous and everlasting learning from and networking with experts in diverse subject matter lead to enormous opportunities for growth.

Continuous and everlasting learning from and networking with experts in diverse subject matter lead to enormous opportunities for growth.

State-of-the-art technologies are readily available to essentially everyone across a given organization, and there are numerous academic and industrial collaborations globally, all working on the next wave of disruptive innovations.

Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of and why?

I think it is still too early to provide a direct answer to this. That said, I will never forget the exhilarating moments when the news came that the first patients had received novel therapeutic interventions discovered and developed by the teams that I was part of!

It is 8 years since you applied to the Reaxys PhD Prize. What do you recall of this experience?

I have very fond memories! The Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium that was part of the ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia introduced me to a fantastic cohort of Reaxys Prize Club members that I still connect with. It was also an opportunity for a coincidental college reunion and my first meeting with the prize winner Dr. Mandal, who turned out to be my future colleague in the Nicolaou Group! We completed the total synthesis of a series of natural products and designed analogs together.

As many others have already pointed out, the networking opportunities brought by the Reaxys Prize Club have been really fantastic. Being able to give back to the community by serving as judges for various future proposals and symposiums could further expand the connections to different sub-fields within chemistry.

Dr Min Lu image | Elsevier
Above (L-R): Dr. Nicolaou, Dr. Min Lu, and Dr. Mandal.

Why was the Reaxys PhD Prize important to you?

As many others have already pointed out, the networking opportunities brought by the Reaxys Prize Club have been really fantastic. Being able to give back to the community by serving as judges for various future proposals and symposiums could further expand the connections to different sub-fields within chemistry as well as the knowledge of 'the latest and the greatest'. And finally, the Reaxys webinar series on the most up-to-date functions and tools continue to help with my information literacy and technology fluency.

Connect with Dr. Min Lu on LinkedIn

Register for the webinar: Accelerate drug discovery by turning data into actionable insights