The breakthrough is fresh in the mind of Dr. Craig Conoscenti. “We all looked at each other. It was an incredible feeling,” he remembers. Conoscenti and his colleagues were not only excited because they had taken a step forward: There was something else in the air. “Suddenly,” says Conoscenti, “there was hope.” That was in 2007 and nintedanib, a drug in development for patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), had just passed the second phase of clinical testing. For Boehringer Ingelheim’s research teams in Ingelheim, Germany, and Ridgefield, Connecticut, USA, one thing was now clear: A potential medicine for people with this rare, chronic lung disease might actually exist. Before this discovery, the disease had brought a swift death for those affected within a few years of diagnosis.
Very little was known about IPF in the early nineties. “There wasn’t even a standardized name for the disease, let alone a standardized treatment,” says Conoscenti. Having worked as a pulmonologist since 1985, he took an early interest in interstitial lung diseases early in his career. Patients living with IPF face progressive loss of lung function due to the formation of scar tissue in their lungs. The reason for this is unknown. “At the time, nothing could be done for these patients other than trying out various non-approved medicines, none of which helped over the long term.” While he was already working as a pulmonologist, Conoscenti’s father, who was one of the first registered respiratory therapists in the US, died of IPF. This was another reason for Conoscenti to push ahead and continue to work on IPF in a clinical setting and eventually join Boehringer Ingelheim to be part of the team to discover a treatment for this devastating disease.