Guest Column | April 9, 2024

Delivering The Next Evolution In Immuno-Oncology

By Caroline J. Loew, Ph.D., CEO of Mural Oncology

Caroline Loew
Caroline Loew

Cancer is one of the most complex and dynamic human diseases. Although considerable advances have been made to bring novel oncology medicines to patients, the reality is that unlocking disease biology and translating that into treatments remains hard. More than two decades ago, some radical thinking and bold science pioneered the immuno-oncology revolution, and it showed us how we can unlock immune system biology to treat cancer to great effect. But since the first wave of treatments that followed, we as an industry haven’t delivered on the promised next wave of immunotherapy and cytokine-based treatments, something that is desperately needed as current immuno-oncology (I-O) response rates have plateaued around 30%.

To deliver medicines with the potential to change patients’ lives, there are several things that I feel are critical to the success of any biopharma company, especially those operating in the challenging field of oncology.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Today, when most industry professionals and investors hear “BMS,” they immediately think of oncology. But when I first started at BMS, that wasn’t the case, and it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the company would focus there. A defining career experience for me was helping to steer the company’s portfolio towards oncology and being part of cementing its leadership in this area as I-O started to realize its very early promise. Through that I gained an invaluable knowledge of the I-O and cytokine space and its potential, and a deep experience bringing the first generation of I-O agents to patients.

When Alkermes decided to spin off its oncology portfolio into a separate, publicly traded company to prioritize and focus on cytokine-based immunotherapies for cancer, I saw the significant potential of Mural Oncology’s programs and jumped at the opportunity to lead the company through this transition.

In the development of cytokines as part of the next wave of I-O treatments, the challenge is to take the ‘known knowns’ of native cytokines and use approaches such as new protein engineering capabilities to capitalize on a particular cytokine’s potency, while overcoming key issues like tolerability. We created Mural Oncology to do just that and, with it, increase the number of people with cancer who could benefit from immunotherapies. Doing so requires us to have a laser-like focus on the science, and on building a team and culture that will allow us to deliver.

It’s All About The People

Over my 25 years in the industry, one thing that has been clear is that people are critical to the success of any organization. It sounds trite, but it’s not. People come first, and that starts with hiring. I am personally part of the interview process for everyone we hire at Mural. It’s non-negotiable. It allows me to ensure we not only have the best people from a functional perspective, but from a team and culture perspective. Drug development is complicated, and it’s a team sport. It requires many people to come to the table and work together without prejudice. I don’t want to see my team nodding in agreement day in and day out. I don’t always want a “yes.” I want to hear respectful debate and discussion. Sometimes, the best ideas are the contrarian voices that encourage critical thinking and spark creativity and innovation. So, we make sure that when we hire, we not only bring in subject matter experts, but collaborators who’ll ensure the diversity of thought we believe is essential to deliver on our goals.

Establishing A Culture Where All Voices Are Heard

In starting Mural Oncology, we weren’t building the culture from the ground up, but something arguably harder: shifting from a large multi-disciplinary pharma to a nimble biotech innovator. This is a large change. Culture is something every organization talks about, and it’s easy to write some values on a piece of paper and post them on your intranet. It is a lot harder to own and live them every day. But in my experience, the only way to really influence a culture is to live it, day in and day out.

At Mural, as CEO, part of my vision for the culture was that it should be one where every voice, irrespective of role or level, is valued and important. Early on, we were presented with a challenge that had the potential to impact our operating plan. My choice was simple: to lead by example. I cleared my calendar, and over the course of three days, I sat down with every single person in the company impacted by this challenge to hear their perspectives and to transparently share mine. The result was an open and honest dialogue about the path forward. But more importantly, I hope it helped to set the tone for what we are trying to achieve at Mural — an environment where employees not only hold themselves accountable but also hold our leadership team accountable for modeling the culture we want to foster.

Follow The Science To The Patient

As CEO, we must make decisions solely guided by science and by what will achieve the best outcome for the patient. We can’t stick with the status quo simply because that’s the way things have always been done within an organization. It requires a lot of discipline and a commitment to following the data. Whether you are a leader who is coming in new to an organization, or assuming the top responsibility after a long internal tenure, this exercise is immensely clarifying. Early in my tenure at Mural I went through a deep evaluation of our portfolio to make sure everything we are doing as an organization is positioning us for success. This included creating appropriate prioritization across all our portfolio of programs, and not prioritizing everything with equal resources or on the same timelines. Each of those decisions was guided by the science and the patients we aim to serve. Now, it is my job to make sure we are relentless in executing those clearly defined priorities.

Delivering the next evolution in I-O demands an approach rooted in bold science and a focus on people. The same holds true for many other companies trying to push the boundaries of science for patients. By being extremely deliberate in who you hire, establishing a culture of open and honest communication with a science-first mentality, and always setting an example for the behavior and thinking we ask of our employees, organizations can be better equipped to deliver the next generation of meaningful medicines to patients.

About The Author:

Caroline Loew, Ph.D., is CEO of Mural Oncology. Dr. Loew’s biopharmaceutical career spans more than 25 years of drug development and commercialization experience.