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Taking science and making people feel connected to it

Published on 21/08/17 at 11:07am

Owen Marks, Country Head for the Rare Disease Unit at Pfizer UK, discusses his career so far and what drives his work in rare diseases.

What made you pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry?

Thinking back, it probably started when I began a Saturday job working in a pharmacy. My mum is actually a pharmacist and so I started helping in the dispensary. From there, I developed my interest in science and went to study Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Edinburgh. Fairly rapidly I was introduced to the idea of working in the industry because there was collaboration between it and the pharmacology department. It taught me how valuable it is that students get a good impression of the industry, at an early stage. At that time, it wasn’t certain that I was going to continue in sciences – I loved science but I was also studying economics, as well. As I already had experience through the partnership at university, it felt like a logical progression to combine my pharmacology and economics education to make the move into pharma. I first began in roles in marketing and then moved into sales, with the rest of my career developing from there.

You mentioned that your experience with the industry at university was a positive one, how important do you believe forming these connections is?

I think that it’s really important to discover the new technologies and molecules in collaboration with universities. We know that this is where the current development model is increasingly moving towards. Equally, from my own experience, it’s also the right way to attract the best talent. Reputation is such an important part of what we do, so that we can connect to smart, interested and engaged students at an early stage to nurture the next generation of innovators.

You clearly have a good connection with Pfizer – you have worked with them now for almost your entire career. How do you believe this consistency has benefitted you?

I think the reason I’ve stayed so long at Pfizer is just the varied experience I’ve gained whilst working here. From the beginning, I joined as part of cardiovascular marketing, working on medicines that benefit hundreds of thousands of patients and then I moved to HIV and specialty drugs before, more recently, setting up the Rare Disease business unit in the UK, where we provide and develop medicines for highly complex and rare disease. The constant experience of working within one company but being able to move around into different parts of business has been very stimulating to me.

How has this broad experience helped with practical issues?

Well, a lot of the opportunities we have in bringing forward new technologies, new medicines and then bringing to them to patients are really exciting but are not always straight forward. Healthcare budgets are under pressure and the NHS is facing many challenges. Often when you’ve got these sorts of issues, having a breadth of experience with working in different sectors in the UK and also working in different countries, across Europe and beyond, has been really useful. For instance, understanding how different countries solve their own difficulties and how you can bring these types of solutions to bear in the UK. Beyond being good for a deeper understanding of my role, it has been important to have that experience to draw on when you get stuck with an issue and need a solution.

What are the most common challenges you are faced with?

I think the healthcare systems all over the globe are facing some really difficult choices so being in a position to be clear about how we can collaborate with NHS England, NICE, SMC and AWMSG; to really understand what they need to be able to make good decisions; to begin working with them early enough so that we’ve got time to be able anticipate their needs. We challenge ourselves , to ensure a collaborative approach with these agencies to make sure we provide the right kind of information and evidence. Obviously, we need to adapt our plans, not just get the right kind of evidence, but change ourselves to meet their needs. We have the privilege of handling the medicines and technologies that could really change patients’ lives and so cannot afford to get this wrong, the consequences could be huge. However, we have such a positive impact on society if we get it right.

If collaboration is crucial, how do you go about improving your relations with the agencies you mention?

Part of it is that we’re trying to set ourselves up in the right way. Firstly, for ourselves, and myself, in the rare disease area, we have a relatively small group and we try to mirror the decision-making groups in NHS England to make sure that it is efficient, from their point of view. We make sure they get a knowledgeable, committed and focused team that they can work with, not the sense of a big pharma company that they can’t connect with. Secondly, we think it’s not about the single-interventions, such as negotiations on only one medicine, but about having a relationship over decades to build a trusting partnership, as much as we possibly can. As open as we can be, that’s always beneficial – if they’re able to share concerns about managing budgets and new interventions coming, and we’re able to share more information with them, then, ultimately, we can come to better solutions.

Rare disease is quite a tricky area, in some respects, to manage to get products through to patients with the agencies always striving to balance their books. What keeps you motivated and what do you enjoy about the work?

The principal thing I would say is that being in the rare disease area is a privilege. I’m sure you know that rare diseases are individually very uncommon but, collectively, are more frequent than most would realise, as they impact almost one in ten people. They also disproportionately occur in young children and families so the level of unmet medical need is huge. Helping to bring medicines through to these patients is then hugely rewarding.

One example of an area we’re really excited about is gene therapy – we have a number of different programmes currently ongoing in the area. Ten years from now we will be thinking: “It was great we were there at that time when this technology started to come through and had a big impact”.

I think the other area I’ve really enjoyed is working in different cultures; previously I worked in a regional marketing role, where I was based in Rome for three years and then in Paris for a couple of years. Working in different cultures and understanding how to set up teams to work optimally, this has been fundamental to how I work now. It had a direct influence on my role as a co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion council within Pfizer, as I really believe that having a diverse group of people helps to make better decisions.

Could you elaborate on what role the Diversity and Inclusion council plays in Pfizer?

It’s really about creating an inclusive culture within the company. There is a lot that we can do to ensure that we have diversity running through all levels of the organisation. We want to make sure that the teams that are working in Pfizer respect that and understand how having differences is a good thing. We also have colleague forums to enable to people share their views, as well as what their aspirations are within the company.

Talking about the importance of individuals, is there anyone that you have worked with or learnt from who was particularly significant to your outlook?

There was a professor, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, called Aubrey Manning [famed Zoologist and broadcaster], who was part of team that worked under Niko Tinbergen, and some of his contemporaries were Richard Dawkins, among others – these were some of the leaders in their fields. The thing that was brilliant about Manning was that he had this ability of taking complex science and transfixing you with the story behind it. That, for me, has proved to be a fascination – how we can take science and make people feel a connection to it. I feel quite passionately that, in the pharmaceutical industry, we can do a better job of that – explaining how pharmaceutical science is about improving patient’s lives and ensuring that they can live better for longer.

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