Guided by Research, Inspired by Hope

In the spirit of the 2016 World Cancer Day theme “We Can, I Can,” we asked Marisa Dolled-Filhart, Ph.D., director of Pathology and Companion Diagnostics at Merck, to share her inspiration and motivation behind finding predictive biomarkers for cancer.

What is your role at Merck?
As a companion diagnostics lead at Merck, I am part of a team that focuses on potential biomarkers that can predict response to cancer drugs as well as to help inform the development of new cancer therapies. Part of my role also includes working and collaborating with external laboratories and diagnostic companies throughout the research and development of these biomarkers and to ensure all our efforts meet the highest scientific standards.


What inspired you to pursue a career in cancer research?
When I was in college my grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away quickly. We were very close so it was a huge loss to me and my family. At the time, I was a biology major and his passing inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in genetics and to focus my research on cancer. I wanted to be able to use my skills and my experience to bring hope to others with loved ones affected by cancer.


What motivates you to continue working as a cancer researcher?
The people and the families who are impacted by cancer – that is what motivates me every day. I am constantly thinking about some of the patients who are involved in our clinical trials who have exhausted all of their other treatment options and how advances in clinical research bring them hope.


What parts of your work make you feel the most fulfilled? 
There is nothing more fulfilling than translating science into clinical and real-life practice. As a researcher, it is humbling to know that time spent focused on the science can help bring life-changing tests and treatments to patients with cancer. I have spent my career focused on oncology biomarkers – and am very gratified by the positive impact that we, as a team, have made for cancer patients and their families.


How has the biomarker and companion diagnostic field evolved since you started working in the field?
Since I started researching cancer biomarkers, it has become increasingly important to understand how treatments can work differently for different patients. It’s a quickly evolving field with promise for helping patients achieve the best possible outcome from their cancer treatment – and for potentially extending survival.


How do you feel your work fits into the broader cancer community's research and treatment landscape?
It is definitely an exciting time for the cancer community. Recently, there has been significant momentum in understanding the biology of cancer. We are seeing new and highly effective treatment approaches emerge for some patients who express specific biomarkers, and we are researching other options for people that have not benefitted from those approaches. We are working harder than ever to improve our understanding of complex diseases like cancer, and our researchers are uncovering new treatment targets and patients have more clinical trial options than ever before. At Merck, we have made significant investments to improve our understanding of biomarkers and the biology behind cancer. It’s inspiring to work among others that constantly strive to identify new and better treatments for people with cancer.


What do you see as the next chapter in cancer research and treatment?
Cancer is a complex disease and the research and treatment landscape is rapidly evolving. Researchers are honing in on the biological underpinnings of cancer and the mechanism of action of different drugs, so in ten years, I envision additional personalized treatment options being available to patients as well as advancements in optimal combinations of drugs to fight cancer. I look forward to being a part of this next chapter.


The World Cancer Day theme is “We Can, I Can.” How do you think you and your work here at Merck ties to that theme?
I feel empowered knowing that I can make a difference as a cancer researcher. I come to work every day thinking about patients and families who are waiting for answers and looking for renewed hope.


And by its very nature, cancer research is very collaborative. I’m proud to work alongside motivated individuals who are unified in their goal to develop innovative cancer treatments. I know that together, we can and are making a difference in the lives of people with cancer.

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