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Working Life: Vertex Pharma's Simon Lem, VP, Regional General Manager of North Europe

Published on 25/06/18 at 02:49pm

Pharmafocus caught up with Vertex Pharma's Simon Lem to discuss his journey throughout the industry and the importance of the steps he's taken along the way in his personal and professional successes.

How did you begin your career in the pharmaceutical industry?

I began my career at a French company called Servier and had what you could call the ‘classical’ commercial pharma career ie: primary care sales, to secondary care to speciality care to marketing and then roles of increasing responsibility on the commercial career ladder, working for both big pharma but also gaining experience in smaller companies and biotechs. I have had the benefit of great training throughout my career. From my very first initial training course when I joined the industry, which lasted for many weeks, to the professional coaching and ‘on the job’ training I have received and continue to receive as my career has progressed. I get asked what the highlights of my career are and I can group them into three key ‘buckets’. One: the people who I have worked with. I have been privileged to work with some great people throughout my career. Two: the medicines I have worked on. I have worked on some great medicines which have and do make a real difference to people’s lives. Three: some of the key achievements I have made. An example being the reimbursement agreement we secured in Ireland last year.

You’ve been in your current role, as Regional GM for Northern Europe for nearly three years – what aspects of the role do you enjoy and what are the greatest difficulties you face?

The science and the commitment to patients are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. Our medicines are the first to treat the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis (CF). Our goal is to cure CF and we remain committed in our pursuit of new medicines for people with CF who are still waiting. My role covers the UK, which has the second highest number of patients in the world. Working in the therapy area, you start to get an understanding of what it really means to live with a debilitating, life-shortening condition. The symptom most commonly associated with the condition is progressive lung damage, but cystic fibrosis affects a multitude of organs in the body meaning half of patients don’t make it to their 31st birthday.

However, getting our medicines to patients as quickly as possible remains my number one challenge. CF is one of the conditions where our understanding of genetics is transforming treatment and care. Currently, we have medicines with the potential to treat nearly half of all CF patients in the UK but only 5% of patients in England can currently access our medicines routinely through the NHS – that’s something we want to address.

Previously you worked as Country Manager for UK, Ireland the Nordic countries – how does your work covering a region the scale of Northern Europe region differ?

It’s more complex on a day-to-day basis, as I work with a broader range of stakeholders in different markets. The variety in terms of healthcare and social security set-up across markets is enormous and it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach. Medical innovation is outpacing the systems used by healthcare authorities to make new medicines available to those who need them. If many countries don’t necessarily have the structures in place to successfully appraise our medicines then there’s a lot of work for us to do.

At Novartis, you had experience as Franchise Head of multiple sclerosis – how did this prepare you for working at Vertex, with its focus on cystic fibrosis?

Every pharmaceutical company or biotech has their own specific approach. Novartis gave me some great additional experience in launching products into what was a new disease area for them. This experience is something I have used at Vertex. One of this things that really appealed to me about Vertex is we are very much science led.

Today, three out of five people who work for us are in R&D and over the last five years, we reinvested more than 70% of our revenues into R&D. And I think this is reflected in our outputs. We have shown in multiple diseases that we can continue to innovate and invent new approaches, therapies and science to help people with serious diseases.

Orkambi (ivacaftor/lumacaftor) is currently occupying quite a few headlines in the UK press, what has been your experience negotiating with the NHS England over giving patients access to the treatment?

Our priority since the medicine was approved by the EMA two and a half years ago has been to work with NICE, NHS England and Ministers to secure access to our medicines as soon as possible. We remain committed to this.

Vertex has been outspoken in a number of communications regarding negotiations, with criticisms of the way they have taken place by email and with ministers writing open letters to the press – do you feel authorities are approaching discussions in an unproductive manner?

We had a constructive meeting on Wednesday 25th April with NHS England. Both parties recognise there is still some way to go to reach an agreement and Vertex is committed to working together to achieve this. We share the cystic fibrosis community’s sense of urgency and have agreed to meet again on May 25. There’s lots of work to do on both sides ahead of this to progress discussions as quickly as possible.

In a broader manner, how do such testing circumstances provide you with lessons that you can take onto future challenges in your career?

Working in a therapy area like CF you are humbled every day by the courage of people with CF, their families and carers. As long as you always keep this at the forefront of your mind, then I believe this is the best possible motivation you can have to tackle the challenges that the day to day job has.

Through our work on CF, we have realized is there is lots of good science and learnings that can be applied to create medicines for other conditions where there is clear unmet clinical need. This approach is now being applied to diseases such as sickle cell, a group of inherited blood disorders. I hope the experiences I and the organization have learnt with CF will ensure we are very well positioned to ensure patients in new disease areas we may enter will get access to life changing drugs as quickly as possible

What would you regard as the biggest achievement over the course of your career?

The portfolio approach we agreed in Ireland is the one that stands out for me. Ireland has the highest incidence of cystic fibrosis in the world (around 1,300 children and adults) with some of the most severe forms of the disease. Friday 1 June 2018 is the first anniversary of the innovative long-term agreement Vertex Pharmaceutical reached with the Health Service Executive in the Republic of Ireland to make cystic fibrosis medicines available. The agreement funds Orkambi and Kalydeco (ivacaftor) and also enables rapid access for people with these mutations if the labels of the existing medicines are expanded to cover additional age groups and if new Vertex medicines are approved for these populations. We hope we can agree a similar approach in England and other countries.

What do you think is the key to remaining motivated on a day-to-day basis?

Commitment to patients. All of us at Vertex remain committed to progressing the fight against CF and are giving it our all every day. We are working hard in the hopes that all people with CF have the best chance for long and happy lives.

What advice would you give to someone considering, or just beginning, a career in the industry?

Never lose sight of the fact your job is about helping to bring new treatments and cures to patients, and with that you carry a lot of hopes and responsibility.

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