Dr Bahija Jallal is the Executive Vice President at AstraZeneca and head of MedImmune, the biologics R&D arm of AstraZeneca. She serves on the Board of Directors of the University of Maryland Health Sciences Research Park Corporation, and is a member of the American Association of Cancer Research and the Pharmacogenomics Working Group. In 2012 she received the Washington Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business Award. Read more about her accomplishments here.
OBR had the privilege to meet with Dr. Jallal at MedImmune, Cambridge. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.
What do you consider some of the most pressing issues in the field of biologics?
Well, there are many pressing issues and I think a big one is how fast we can bring [therapeutics] to the patients. To me that is the most important thing. […] After being in this field for 20 years, while we’ve made a lot of progress, there is still an unmet medical need. In cancer there is still a huge need in particular no matter how much we’re doing. And in asthma people don’t even realise that there is a huge segment in severe asthma. The drug development process still takes too long and we’ve got patients who are waiting [for treatments].
My wish is that we can have molecules that are orally available for instance. That we improve our drug delivery and that it becomes something easy that can be done at home. My ultimate wish is to bring more personalised healthcare into everything that we do and that we understand the patients a lot more.
How does MedImmune meet some of these challenges?
Science is about being open and about collaboration, so we try to do that as much as possible and collaborate with academics and other companies. The second thing is then to make [MedImmune] a more attractive place for attracting talent to come and help us directly. So those are the first two, and the third one, for me, is never to think that we are right and that we know everything. We keep ourselves open to the idea that we don’t know enough and that we can always strive to do more.
If I want to go to a company, the first thing that I look at is the quality of the science. And how can you judge the quality of the science at the company? There are two things. One, who are the people there? I believe that good talent attracts good talent. The second one is how we publish. We have to publish. That’s the only dialogue we have with the outside.
It’s very important to me not just to look at the people who are going to join us today, but to also look at the next generation. So giving back to the community, going to schools, and getting people to love science, frankly.
So in all three [MedImmune] sites we do a lot of [charity] because I think that one of the most important things is not only to be environmentally friendly, but also giving back to the community. Here, we have examples like the Cambridge science festival – I still have to make it there sometime! But what’s very nice is to see that the employees are very passionate about doing that. At other sites we open up the doors to students to come. We also have days just for girls in science, because that has to start really early to tell them and be a role model and show them that they can go into this work if they want to.
On a slightly different note, what sort of challenges do you face on a day-to-day basis from being a part of a larger organisation?
I’m someone who likes to look at the cup half full. There are challenges, but there are also really good things. I think that the challenges that we faced at the beginning were the exact same challenge as when you’re dating. You start dating, you don’t know the person, but once you really feel that you’re working toward the common goal then you realise that we’re all in it for the same reason, to help patients.
But what’s really important with the larger company and the new CEO is to allow for different identities […]. I’m a firm believer, that it’s only when you do that that you can have innovation. Even within MedImmune, Cambridge is very different from Gaithersburg and it’s very different from California. We have three sites and that’s a good thing because we can’t make the site in America be exactly as the site in Cambridge, there’s such a huge difference. To have innovation I think you need to allow for a little bit of entropy.
In true OBR spirit, given your senior leadership role, what advice would you give for someone trying to get into industry?
First of all, do your homework, right? It’s exactly like the universities are not all created equally, the companies are not all created equally either. Most of the people in science are passionate about what they do. So my advice always to the young generation coming, is follow your heart and your passion and don’t settle. Don’t go after a title or get into something that you don’t like because I can tell you that’s going to get old very quickly. Follow your heart and follow your passion, because that’s the only way that you can be at your best.
Where do you see MedImmune going in the future?
I can tell you, my dream for MedImmune has no limit. It’s not how big we’re going to become or how rich we’re going to become, but how many lives we’re going to impact. When I look at the biologics pipeline right now, I see possibilities where we can bring [new therapeutics] to the market soon. So if you look at the areas that we’re in right now, with oncology, we have a whole new paradigm. We [also] have so many possibilities now moving into phase three, getting closer to patients to treat severe asthma. And most people don’t recognize this unless they have someone touched by severe asthma.