A former HIV researcher, associate professor of medicine at State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, and vice president at Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth NJ USA Research Labs, Keith Chirgwin understands the contributions that academia and industry can make to global health. At the foundation, Keith serves as a thought partner with scientists working on product development strategies to address ambitious global health goals.
I spent 10 years in academia doing clinical research on HIV and other infectious diseases in impoverished populations, and I saw firsthand issues of social inequity: access to care and the burden of disease hitting certain populations. During that time I also saw big, difference-making changes coming out of the pharma and biotech industries. It’s clear that you need size and resources to create change. In the course of learning about the foundation, I recognized their resources and goals together with my experience were a good fit.
The steps involved in getting a drug, vaccine, or product to market are complex, here and globally, so when you’re developing a vaccine or drug, early on you need to begin to understand how it will be approved. In the United States, the Food & Drug Administration is the approval agency, but every country has its own agency and process. The foundation spends considerable resources to advance the development of products to address important global health needs, and we need to ensure that these products will make it through the regulatory process in a timely fashion.
What I like about regulatory is that it brings all aspects of product development together – discovery, clinical, and manufacturing. Also the foundation has the best elements of both academia and industry. Other organizations offer more hands-on opportunities, but the clarity of thought here really resonates. There’s a focus. And this organization offers the biggest opportunities to do good. Many people who come here have already had “success,” but they come to the foundation because they want to make a lasting difference.
It’s important to note that we aren’t publicly held. We don’t have stockholders expecting a return on their investment. And some of our investments are inherently risky. For instance, many companies have tried and failed at making an HIV vaccine, while others don’t attempt it because it requires a lot of resources with no guaranteed return. We have the resources without stockholder expectations, and I think it is really important that someone is doing it that way.
Part of succeeding here is taking time to get to know the people, not just the agenda. The nature of our work is very challenging, and that’s certainly part of the appeal, but there’s a spirit here and a focus on solving things together. You need to take time to get to know the people, and I really enjoy that.