The Successful Experiment
Sitting Down With… Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), UK.
Did you always want to work in pharma?
Well, I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I actually started my career as a marketing trainee with Unilever – where I worked for 14 years. I was then hired by Glaxo as an “experiment” after they were persuaded by a consultancy that the NHS was changing and that they needed to bring in someone with different skills. It was unusual at the time and I was, in fact, the first non-pharma person they brought in. I quickly came to appreciate just how worthwhile the mission statement of our industry is – and 20 years went by in a flash!
What are some of the biggest challenges you’re currently facing?
I have to say that during my interview for the ABPI job, the words “Brexit” and “industrial strategy” were not mentioned! But I think too often people see things as problems and fail to appreciate the opportunities. I entered the industry because I believe it needed to change, and the UK needed to change to get the best out of the industry. Sometimes you need to shake things up to spur on change – and it just so happens that the shaking has been done for me! It is a fantastic time to be in the industry right now because everybody has recognized both the potential and need for new thinking in the UK.
So you think that Brexit will be a catalyst for change?
I absolutely think it will. In a sense, we became comfortable with the UK being a gateway to Europe. Regardless of the Brexit outcome, this is likely to change. We must, therefore, stand on our own two feet and recognize that we’re a market worth just 2.3 percent of the global marketplace. To attract global companies, we’re going to have to be the best. I believe we will look back in 10 years and say, “Gosh. That was a difficult time to go through, but it was a catalyst in getting us to address some of the things we’ve always needed to address, and we’ve come out of it much stronger.”
And are you optimistic about the Brexit negotiations?
There is a scenario that will present real challenges in supplying our medicines to patients across Europe. But I believe that politicians have great skill in going to the precipice and then turning back – and finding a way out. I do not believe that we will get into that situation (even if it is the one thing causing me sleepless nights at the moment). We have been abundantly clear to politicians about the risk involved, and I feel pretty certain that we will get results – though I don’t know how or when…
What most excites you about the future?
We haven’t even begun to understand the impact of the genomics revolution. And I’m pleased to see the UK government investing in biobank and the 100,000 genomes project – those projects are putting the UK at the forefront of understanding the potential of the genomics revolution. I think in 20 or 30 years, people will look back at the completion of the human genome and realize that it was truly an incredible moment in human history. It’s taken us some time to see some of that work translate into new medicines, but I think we’re eventually going to be able to cure certain incurable diseases. We’re only at the beginning and it’s enormously exciting to be a part of it – it’s almost like a space race.
What are your thoughts on the potential of cell therapies?
Keith Thompson from the UK Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult played a video of CAR-T therapies in action at the ABPI’s recent annual conference. The last time I saw anything like that, I was playing Pac-Man in the 1970s! Seeing cancer cells being gobbled up brought to life the power of these new therapies. The question now: how do we get these groundbreaking therapies to patients? Simon Stevens, CEO of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), has said that he understands the importance of these therapies and is already changing the way the NHS is configured to allow these medicines to be delivered to patients. On the pharma side, we’re going to have to change our supply chains, but these changes are also happening.
What is the most memorable moment of your career?
Early on in my career, I was responsible for the HIV portfolio at GSK. I remember speaking with a leading clinician about the impact our medicines were having on him and his patients. He said the introduction of triple therapy meant that patients who had come to his hospital to die were, in a short period of time, now able to go home – and even back to work. Those sorts of stories are so powerful that they never leave you.
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