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Pharma to the Rescue

Last year, I had the opportunity to attend Comic Con in London, UK. I was there with my Takeda colleagues to raise awareness of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in a pretty unusual way. With the support of Marvel Custom Solutions, Takeda unveiled a group of  “Super Hero” characters and the first chapter of a new graphic comic book. This global initiative – IBD Unmasked – has been designed to highlight both the daily battles and the remarkable strength of the unsung heroes of the global IBD community. I’m proud to say that Takeda is the first pharmaceutical company to partner with Marvel Custom Solutions on a disease awareness campaign. 

The team, called The Unbeatables (comprising Samarium, Switchback, Rubblerouser, Datawave and Luminaria), was created with input from a panel of IBD patients from around the world. The members of The Unbeatables are connected to IBD in some way. For example, the character Samarium has ulcerative colitis and Luminaria is a nurse in frequent contact with people who have IBD. I was touched by how the initiative resonated with people at the event in London. The pharma industry has an ethical responsibility to support patients throughout their entire journey, which includes helping them to understand their diseases better. It’s not just about making medicines.

Disease-awareness campaigns are, of course, a common way to disseminate information, but it can be difficult to cut through the noise and to truly strike a chord with patients of all ages. We wanted to do something that focused on IBD because this is something that Takeda knows a lot about. It’s a chronic disease that patients have to live with throughout their lives – many patients can begin to see symptoms in their teens or early twenties, which may include stomach pain, recurring diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. IBD can be a very isolating disease because patients often feel very embarrassed to talk about it – something that is true for many diseases. I believe it is an area where pharma companies should be stepping up to help. Yes, typical resources that companies put together have a place, but surely we can be more creative in our approach.

Heroes cut across cultures and age groups and the idea of fighting villains is quite an apt analogy for patients who are battling with symptoms every day and often wear “masks” to hide their condition from others. And who was better to partner with for the initiative than Marvel, as well as people who spend their life fighting their IBD?

Everyone involved in the project is incredibly invested – from the patient panel to the artists. The Marvel illustrator of the graphic novel cover, who lives with IBD herself, actually found out about the project through her local patient advocacy group and put herself forward to help because she was so eager to get involved.

Pharma is heavily regulated so it can be difficult to be innovative at times, even with a disease-awareness campaign. It’s important not to trivialize a disease, or to appear patronizing, and if you’re using a story-telling approach then the voices need to be authentic. IBD Unmasked is a global campaign that will be rolled out around the world in the coming year. The graphic novel will also be available in a variety of languages. The first chapter launched in 2016 and we hope to launch the second chapter in the coming months. Over time, we’ll create the complete graphic novel, with each, chapter revealing more about each of The Unbeatables. We’re not just exploring how individuals manage their symptoms, but how it affects their relationships with family, friends and healthcare providers.

From the start, I firmly believed the project would bring value to the community and it was an eye-opener to be at Comic Con (in more ways than one); many people came to our booth to tell us that they had IBD and were genuinely pleased by the characters we had created. These people certainly didn’t go to Comic Con intending to talk about IBD so I think it’s great that we could start to encourage people to open up. Graphic novels won’t resonate with everyone, but they do seem to be a good medium for young adults – a group of patients that is vastly under-served.

I encourage other companies to think more creatively about how they might approach a disease-awareness campaign that can really resonate with patients. The rewards for doing so are very humbling. One recent compelling moment for me was when a patient sent us drawings of herself as a superhero. Isn’t it great to make patients think like that?

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About the Author
Danny Stepto

Danny Stepto is Global Product & Pipeline Communications at Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

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