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Vol 23, No. 07, July 2019   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Fighting misconception with science
Scientific communication must be substantiated, accurate, and not misleading. Professor Manuel Peitsch says being transparent about science is paramount to his team’s mission in creating a smoke-free future.

I became a scientist because…..

I wanted to understand the fundamental mechanisms of life and eventually apply this understanding to changing the course of diseases through interventions. I studied biology and physical chemistry, two key areas to understanding life, and later developed my skills in computational biology, which is crucial to analyse and understand the massive data generated by modern science. I focused on this area for over a decade, which led me to be a co-founder of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics as well as of Geneva Bioinformatics, the commercial arm of the institute. I continued to develop these areas during my years in the pharmaceutical industry where I also gained much of my understanding of disease mechanisms that are at the centre of our efforts at Philip Morris International (PMI).

I chose to work in this field because….

Smoking is a major cause of preventable non-communicable diseases. I joined PMI 11 years ago, after 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry, with the purpose to work on a new generation of nicotine containing products that have the potential to reduce the risk of smoking-related diseases and thereby positively influence public health. My transition was motivated by the understanding that preventing diseases is more efficient and impactful than curing diseases. When I joined, this was a vision and over the last decade my work has been focused on making this a reality. Today, our mission at PMI is to design a smoke-free future, gradually replacing cigarettes with significantly less harmful alternatives, and our scientific resources play a critical role in this regard.

A typical day in the lab is…..

As PMI’s chief scientific officer, I lead our biomedical research and development teams, which are comprised of scientists focused on the assessment of novel nicotine containing products using our understanding of the causal chain of biochemical events (mechanisms) that links smoking to disease. This work also led to the development of systems toxicology and its application to product assessment across non-clinical and clinical studies.

While I do not typically spend my days in our labs, we have over 250 scientists and technicians who focus on various areas including the characterisation of the aerosol our product generates, the toxicity and biological impact of these aerosols in vivo and in vitro, and clinical studies.

Our lab is currently working on….

Major non-clinical and clinical studies aimed at further assessing the disease risk reduction potential of our novel product portfolio. I am really interested in gaining an even better understanding of nicotine itself, looking at both its negative and positive biological effects. This will lead to a better understanding of the benefits and risks of novel nicotine delivery products in comparison with cigarettes.

The biggest challenge about being a scientist is…

Science in my field should aim at the improvement of quality of life and individual and public health. It is crucial to keep an open mind at every moment of every day. Therefore, scientists should always remain critical and ensure they consider the totality of the evidence when making decisions or recommendations. It can, however, be challenging to resist the pressure to conform to pre-conceived ideas and accept new scientific knowledge to form opinions on issues that are controversial.

Scientists should constantly drive for excellence in science and its execution. In my field of work, scientists should design studies that are as relevant as possible to the human situation while clearly understanding their limitations when interpreting the results. It is also crucial to use adequate experimental setups and methodologies that mimic the real situation.

Communicating complex scientific matter in simple terms is also challenging. The art in scientific communication is to simplify the facts without approximations and ensure our product messages are fully substantiated, accurate and not misleading.

Our latest publication….

Addresses the assessment of our novel nicotine delivery products and provide insights into their potential to reduce the risk of smoking-related diseases compared to ongoing cigarette smoking. These publications report on studies conducted in vitro and in vivo using a systems toxicology-based approach. This approach integrates well-established toxicology endpoints with novel omics-based approaches and computational methods that enable the mechanism-by-mechanism comparison of the effects of novel nicotine delivery products with those of cigarettes.

Being transparent about our science is paramount to our mission of creating a smoke-free future, and our scientific teams have published over 300 articles over the past 10 years to share our findings.

In my free time, I enjoy….

Scuba diving and the observation of the underwater world. I also enjoy astronomy, which was my very first interests in science (I bought my first telescope as a teenager).

I would recommend everybody to read this book….

There are many books I could recommend, but “The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink and Abuse Alcohol” by Robert Dudley, stands out in particular because it made me think about the interplay between our evolutionary heritage, addictive behaviors and of course how modern society both enables and judges these behaviors. This book tells a story that can serve as a guide to understanding other addictions. I think that understanding addictions through the lens of evolutionary medicine can enable a better understanding of how to prevent and treat addictions.

I enjoy my job because….

Together with my team, we have a unique opportunity to influence the future of public health through science. When we started on this journey over a decade ago, we quickly realised that assessing the disease risk reduction potential of novel nicotine delivery products requires a novel scientific approach that enables a comprehensive mechanism-by-mechanism comparison of the effects of these products with those of cigarettes. This led us to build a very diverse and integrated cross-functional team of experts and I enjoy the fact that every day I am involved in scientific discussions that involve a broad range of scientific disciplines including, chemistry, physics, biology, medicine, mathematics and computational sciences. I also enjoy my job because it entails scientific communications and contributing to the long-term strategy of the company.

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