The Human Element: Reframing Public Perception of the Biopharmaceutical Industry

Aug 17, 2020

Guest Blog by Nancy Simonian, M.D., CEO of Syros Pharmaceuticals

My father was a physician and my mother a nurse. Growing up, I saw the difference they made in people’s lives, and I wanted nothing more than to do the same. That desire is the single unifying thread throughout my career, starting as a practicing neurologist and culminating in my role as CEO of Syros, and it remains my greatest motivator for what I do every day.

I see that same desire to make a difference in my colleagues and countless others in the drug industry, so I have always struggled with the poor public perception of our industry. Today, with the race to find vaccines and treatments to combat COVID-19, the public’s attention is rivetted on our industry as never before. Buoyed by the unprecedented mobilization of scientists, biotech, pharma and healthcare providers, recent polls have recorded improvements in the public’s perception and trust of biopharma.

Researchers from The Harris Poll found that, as of May, 40% of the American public said pharma’s reputation had improved since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak and 81% recalled seeing or hearing something about the industry during that time. These figures represent the biggest improvement in the reputation and relevance of our industry since Harris started polling pharma and other sectors in 2001.

The question – one that is the topic of a panel discussion next week at MassBio’s State of the Possible Conference – is whether the improvement in the perception of our industry will withstand the inevitable debates about drug pricing, disparities in access, and inherent distrust of the motives of for-profit entities, and what we can do to shift perception.

There is, of course, no simple answer. Issues of out-of-pocket costs, access and disparities are real, and we must find new ways to bring stakeholders together to find solutions. If we cannot do that, then everything else will fall on deaf ears. We must also deliver true innovation – therapies, vaccines and diagnostics that provide tangible benefits for patients. I also believe that we need to inject more humanity into the narrative about our industry. We need to show the world what we see by sharing real stories from real people – stories of the scientists and clinicians who truly care, but most of all, stories from patients and families whose lives have been transformed by new therapies as well as those who are still in dire need of better therapies.

When I think about the more impactful moments in my career, they are almost all connected to meeting patients and hearing their stories. I remember meeting a multiple myeloma patient in one of the early trials of Velcade whose disease had gone into remission. I was chief medical officer at Millennium at the time, leading development of this drug that has since helped transform the treatment of multiple myeloma. But for all the data and statistics I could share about the drug and its impact, it is that patient I will never forget.

Not long ago, I met a woman with multiple sclerosis who was diagnosed when there were no treatments to slow or stop the progression of the disease. She has now been taking Avonex, the first drug I worked on when I moved into industry, for more than 20 years, managing her disease and living her life. A friend of mine with chronic lymphocytic leukemia has relapsed five times. At each relapse, there was a new drug approved or in clinical trials that put his disease back into remission, in one case, just in the nick of time.

These stories highlight the urgency and impact of our work, and we need to tell them. But we also need to seek out patient stories to better understand their perspectives and experiences so we can truly put the patient at the center of what we do because we cannot hope to solve problems that we don’t understand and may not even recognize.

Last year, the mother of a young cancer patient came to speak to us at Syros. A self-employed lawyer, she stopped working when her 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, requiring daily hospital visits for six months. Their family income was cut in half, a phenomenon that is all too common among cancer patients. Recently, a fellow biotech CEO told me how in talking to a group of patients, he learned that many of them lacked transportation, requiring them to take multiple buses to get treatment, a barrier to care and clinical trial participation that the company addressed with the simple act of providing Uber vouchers.

We talk a lot about patient-centricity in our industry, and I believe it is heartfelt. Our mission is to make a difference for patients. But to be truly patient-centric, we need to think beyond delivering drugs. We need to partner with patients and other stakeholders to find areas of shared priorities and values to address broader issues in healthcare. We need to work together to identify, understand and remove social and financial barriers that prevent people from participating in trials, seeking care, or accessing new therapies.

If we can do that, then I believe we can bring about meaningful change for patients, for our industry and our society built on a foundation of trust and true partnership.

Join Nancy and other industry leaders as they further this discussion at MassBio’s State of Possible Conference, taking place virtually on August 26-27. You can register online, here.

About the Author:

Nancy Simonian, M.D
CEO, Syros Pharmaceuticals

Nancy Simonian, M.D, is the founding CEO of Syros and has an established track record of value creation in biotechnology. Prior to Syros, she was Chief Medical Officer at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and previously, Vice President of Clinical Development at Biogen. Nancy has overseen the successful development of numerous medicines. Under Nancy’s leadership as Chief Medical Officer at Millennium, VELCADE became a mainstay of treatment for multiple myeloma. Nancy led development of Millennium’s clinical pipeline, including NINLARO for hematologic malignancies and ENTYVIO for inflammatory bowel disease. At Biogen, Nancy played a central role in developing AVONEX and TYSABRI for multiple sclerosis. Nancy started her career as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and neurology staff at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She trained in neurology and internal medicine at MGH and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Princeton. She is currently a member of the board of directors of Evelo Biosciences, Seattle Genetics, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) and the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

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