In July I had two interesting opportunities. The first was on July 12, 2017 when I attended the Partnering For Cures (Twitter hashtag #FCP4C) conference in Boston. The second took place on July 19, when I got to tour GSK’s vaccine manufacturing facility in Marietta, PA. And while you might not think that a biopharmaceutical conference and a manufacturing facility would have much in common, in actuality they do, as both are focused on delivering safe and effective, high-quality medicines to patients as quickly and efficient as possible. Here are some highlights from my recent experiences.
What Made Partnering For Cures Standout From 2016?
The Partnering For Cures Conference was very different from previous versions. For starters, the organizer, FasterCures, changed the annual two-day event in New York City to being two one-day events on the East and West Coasts, with the next iteration happening on Nov. 14, 2017, in San Francisco. Compared to last year’s two-day program, the July event was a bit smaller. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. One of the things I like about smaller conferences is you often have a greater opportunity to network with key industry stakeholders. For example, one of the attendees in Boston was Mark Alles, CEO of Celgene, who I observed taking notes at the back of the room during one of the panel discussions. I had interviewed Alles for a cover feature in 2016, so after the panel I walked over and introduced him to my son Zane who attended the show with me. A recent College of Wooster graduate with a B.A. in political science, Zane thought it would be instructive to attend an event like Partnering For Cures to see how a diverse set of stakeholders with a common mission (i.e., delivering safe and effective medicines to patients as quickly as possible) collaborate. Upon learning of Zane’s desire to move to Washington D.C. to get some experience on “The Hill,” Alles shared how holding the title of CEO seems to imply being highly qualified at lobbying. The CEO mentioned spending a good bit of time in Washington D.C., lobbying on behalf of patients and biopharma. And while he intuitively knew lobbying to be an important part of his role as CEO, he admitted that his efforts take more time than he could have ever anticipated. Pausing for a picture with Zane, Alles instructed him to work on learning how to write good policy, which he described as being an extremely underappreciated but highly desirable skill for politicians.
Partnering For Cures provided for a full day of networking and educational activity. Though all provided a great deal of insight, my favorite presentation was conducted by David Fajgenbaum, M.D. (link to YouTube video of similar talk by him can be found here). The cofounder and executive director of the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network (CDCN), Dr. Fajgenbaum shared his personal experience of battling idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease (iMCD).
As a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania back in 2010, Fajgenbaum noted not feeling well and went to the ER of the hospital where he worked. The doctors ran some bloodwork and informed him that his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were shutting down, but they didn’t know why. Though Fajgenbaum was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU), his condition continued to decline. It took about two months to formally diagnose him with iMCD, an immune system disease that attacks and shuts down the body’s vital organs. With that diagnosis came his first shot at treatment. Unfortunately, he didn’t respond right away and became so sick that his family was encouraged to say their final goodbyes, and a priest was invited to read him his last rights. That was over seven years ago. Fajgenbaum shared his disease journey with the audience, which was both funny and heart wrenching. But what I found most insightful (and hopeful) was how he encouraged researchers to continue to challenge the status quo. For the only reason Fajgenbaum is still alive is because of his research efforts around his own disease. His publication in the journal, Blood, initiated a paradigm shift in the iMCD disease model and classification system. Today, Fajgenbaum is in his longest period of remission ever, thanks to his identifying a treatment that had never previously been used for iMCD.
Why Tour A Vaccine Manufacturing Plant?
The week following Partnering For Cures, I had the opportunity to tour one of GSK’s vaccine manufacturing facilities in Marietta, PA. During BIO 2016, I interviewed Luc Debruyne, president of GSK’s global vaccine business. Following the conversation, we discussed GSK providing Life Science Leader with a tour of one of its vaccine manufacturing facilities to provide even greater insight into their vaccines efforts. Unfortunately, due to conflicting schedules, it took us just over a year to finally get this done.
Our guide for the half-day excursion was site director, Michael Szymanski. A microbiologist by training, Szymanski walked us around the facility diligently answering all of my questions. For example, when we were looking at the filling line I noticed one of the employees wearing a red hairnet, while all of the others seemed to be wearing blue. So I asked, “What’s with the red hairnet?” Szymanski explained that the red hairnet was a visual indicator for other employees not to disturb them (i.e., red means stop), for that person is currently involved in a task requiring a high attention to detail.
If you want to come across some good old-fashioned commonsense wisdom, just walk around with Szymanski for a while. For example, there are lines throughout the facility on the floor indicating where to walk, where something is to be stored, the direction in which a door opens, etc. I commented on this to Szymanski and he matter of factly stated, “There is a place for everything, and everything has its place.” He went on to share that the facility has had zero manufacturing incidents for well over a year. “We don’t want someone tripping over toolbox while doing their job because it wasn’t where it was supposed to be,” he added. While walking around the facility you definitely see and feel the importance of a culture that pays attention to these seemingly little things. Visual factories (i.e., whiteboards) are located throughout and filled with information necessary to communicate between shifts and people. A paper project-planning road map stretches well over 50 feet down a hallway that indicates the beginning and nearing end of a project and all of the necessary steps in-between.
There were a variety of things that greatly impressed me during this tour. But you are going to have to wait to find out what impressed me the most. Because at the end of the tour I had the opportunity to interview Szymanski for an upcoming feature in Life Science Leader magazine, and you’re not going to want to miss this one! Stay tuned.