Gail Webster

Antonella Converso Rising Star, submitted by Ann Weber

Blog Post created by Gail Webster on Aug 14, 2019

For 2019 Rising Star Antonella Converso, using chemistry to help people is an incredible gift.  She gets to do just that in her career as a medicinal chemist at Merck Research Labs in West Point, PA.  There she has worked on programs directed toward cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and most recently HIV/AIDS. Converso, who hails from Italy, moved to the United States after receiving a BS/MS in chemistry from the Università degli Studi della Calabria and earned a PhD in organic chemistry with Nobel Laureate K. Barry Sharpless at Scripps.  After post-doctoral studies with K.C. Nicolaou, also at Scripps, she joined Merck in 2006. Both these early mentors have a contagious passion for science that she herself shares. Among her many accomplishments, Antonella reported the first known allosteric inhibitors of Chk1 kinase for oncology. “There is much to learn off the beaten path,” she says, telling the story of how these compounds were discovered as part of a parallel effort within the main program.  She then moved on to study S-adenosyl-l-homocysteine hydrolase as a potential target to treat Alzheimer’s disease.  There she took a carbocyclic nucleoside lead Neplanocin A, worked through genetic toxicity issues, and developed a series of potent compounds with good ADME properties demonstrating in vivo efficacy in animal models of the disease.  Reflecting on this experience and the many hurdles overcome along the way, she advised, “Don’t give up if you believe in an idea.” In 2009, Antonella joined the newly formed Exploratory Chemistry department at Merck, “where,” she explained, “chemistry meets biology.”  And soon after she gave birth to twins! After maternity leave, her efforts shifted to HIV/AIDS, an area that she and her team have focused on for the past few years. Working in the early discovery space “you know where you started, but you don’t always know where you’ll end up,” she reflected, “so doubt and debate everything. And have fun while doing so!”#