HBA's Woman of the Year 2017

Apr 13, 2017
Volume 37, Issue 4

Pharm Exec profiles AstraZeneca and MedImmune’s Bahija Jallal, this year’s winner of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Woman of the Year award, whose career-long passion for drug discovery and translational science has taken her on a bold and winding path from cancer researcher to leading a big pharma biotech engine.

 

Photo: Sam Levitan

 

Casablanca in the 1970s offered women few educational and professional opportunities. For many young girls at the time, like Bahija Jallal, the bustling Moroccan city may have represented a dead end. But this would not be the case for Jallal, raised by a strong mother who instilled in her early on that she could be whatever she wanted. Today, Jallal is executive vice president of AstraZeneca, head of MedImmune, the pharma giant’s biologics R&D arm, and an active, outspoken supporter of women’s rights. The pharma leader and PhD holder has vast experience in translational science and has helped usher to market a portfolio of successful drugs. 

The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) selected Jallal as its 2017 Woman of the Year. She will be honored at HBA’s 28th annual event on May 11 in New York City. 

While quite the milestone in Jallal’s career journey,  the timeworn phrase of “she’s come a long way” does not fit. Given Jallal’s lifelong insatiable curiosity and tireless drive, it seems the world has finally caught up to her.  

From loss to discovery  

Jallal’s root inspiration for a deep desire to learn and understand can be firmly pinned to an early tragedy. When she was nine years old, her father went to a clinic in pain with a suspected kidney stone. He never came back; his family learned he died from medical error. “If I want to put my finger on when I decided to pursue this quest, if you will, of discovering, that is it,” says Jallal. Her mother raised five daughters and two sons by herself. “I give her a lot of credit for pushing us into believing in ourselves and believing that there are no barriers,” she says. 

After finishing her secondary education, Jallal, who speaks French, Arabic, German, and English, left Morocco for France. She earned her master’s degree in biology from the Université Paris Diderot, a multidisciplinary university known as Paris 7. After that, Jallal pursued her doctorate in physiology at University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris. It wasn’t until her postdoctoral research that she discovered her passion for cancer research. 

As a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany, Jallal worked in the lab of Axel Ullrich, who had himself rejoined academia after working at Genentech. In the mid-1990s, Ullrich and his team were testing anti-cancer agents on a then-newfangled premise of targeted therapy. They were interested in the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) protein in breast cancer. “That’s where my passion for cancer and for understanding the targets of therapy started,” says Jallal. This interest forms an unbroken thread throughout her career. 

After Jallal left Max Planck, she faced a decision newly minted researchers still struggle with today: stay in academia or make the leap into biotech. Jallal decided to try biotech—still in its infancy as an industry—and signed on as a group leader at a cancer research lab in Sugen, a then-subsidiary of Pharmacia, which was acquired by Pfizer in 2003. One day, a patient requested to speak with the Sugen scientists who were involved in the development of Sutent (sunitinib malate), a receptor protein-tyrosine kinase inhibitor approved in 2006 for metastatic kidney cancer. The patient described her experience of taking the drug and how grateful she was. 

“I vividly remember walking out from that conference room with the patient and saying to myself, ‘This is what I want to do. I will never go back to academia,’” says Jallal. 

Answering the call

After rising to the role of senior director of research at Sugen just seven years after joining the company, Jallal left in 2003 to become senior director of drug research and translation at Chiron Corporation, a multinational biotech based at the time in Emeryville, California. Her task at Chiron was herculean. She needed to set up a translational science hub that would streamline the company’s pipeline, with a particular focus on cancer drugs. Again, Jallal had acquired skills and experience within a then cutting-edge concept: she relied on translational science approaches and techniques to improve the bottom line. 

“In translational science, we focus on how to harness the patient population that is most likely to succeed,” she says. To get to that point, a series of research questions need to be investigated. According to Jallal, one of the most important—but sometimes overlooked—questions to ask first is does the drug hit its target? Second, which biomarkers can be monitored in experiments, or created if they do not exist yet? Finally, she encourages her team members to test the drug in a specific, focused patient population, and not in all-comers. 

“It behooves us for the sake of patients and time that we get our answers about the drug soon,” says Jallal, adding that “a good drug declares itself early.” At Chiron, Jallal was a core member of a new management team created to generate ideas and orchestrate the change involved in the $5.1 billion acquisition by Novartis in 2006. She helped expedite a new drug application and five investigational new drug filings during her three years there. 

In 2006, Jallal got a call from MedImmune, which a year later would be acquired by AstraZeneca. Would she be interested in starting up the group’s translational science division? “What attracted me [about MedImmune] was an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit,” says Jallal. Faced with a diverse portfolio of drugs, Jallal took a page from her translational science playbook in oncology and applied it as a strategy to develop potential new medicines.

“I thought that bringing an understanding of oncology, which was more advanced at the time, to other areas would be a great idea,” she says. First, Jallal put her knowledge of targeted therapeutic approaches behind an up-and-coming autoimmune disease agent. Jallal’s team developed an interferon signature that allowed them to identify the patients for whom the therapy was more likely to work. The drug is now in Phase III clinical trials for lupus.

 

JoAnn Suzich, vice president of infectious disease and vaccines research at MedImmune, still remembers interviewing Jallal for her first role at the company. “After speaking with her, I remember saying, ‘We’ve finally found our person,’” says Suzich. The two women have worked together at MedImmune since 2006 and Jallal now serves as Suzich’s supervisor. 

Suzich was impressed by Jallal’s detailed plan of how the new translational science center would bridge research and clinical. “Her willingness to be audacious was memorable,” says Suzich. “She had a clear idea about all of the parts that needed to be in place for a center, even if they wouldn’t be built right away.” Over the years, Suzich has relied on Jallal for guidance on scientific conundrums related to her work. “She always tells me, ‘You will fix this immediate problem. But let’s go beyond that and think about what will happen once it’s fixed,’” says Suzich. 

A bold trail

Beginning in 2007, Jallal, working with team members, launched a bold 10-year vision for MedImmune. The goal? Build up the pipeline in order to submit one new biologics license application (BLA), on average, each year. The team accomplished that in 2015 when the company filed for the psoriasis drug Siliq (brodalumab) in partnership with Valeant Pharmaceuticals. It was subsequently approved by FDA this year. Last year, AstraZeneca submitted BLAs for durvalumab, a treatment for bladder cancer, and benralizumab, a monoclonal antibody for asthma. FDA granted a breakthrough therapy designation for durvalumab with a Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) date in the second quarter of 2017. Earlier this year, the regulatory submission for benralizumab was accepted for review in severe, uncontrolled asthma. MedImmune is on track to file another BLA this year; biologics make up 50% of AstraZeneca’s pipeline. 

Under Jallal’s leadership, MedImmune has made significant strides into China’s biologics market. In 2012, the company partnered with a local Chinese biotech, WuXi AppTec, to create novel biologics and get them to local patients quickly. “Late last year, we announced that our multinational-local corporate venture became the first of its kind to earn approval of a biologic investigational new drug in China,” says Jallal, referring to an anti-IL-6 antibody for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. The China FDA approved it as a class I biologic and gave the green light for Phase I clinical trials. 

Jallal has also worked hard to create—both physically and culturally—an open work environment where innovation can thrive. Starting at the leadership level, MedImmune broke down walls and physical barriers in offices. Now the entire Maryland campus works in an open floor plan. “We also have a rich cultural diversity,” says Jallal. “Groups of employees host special events like a celebration of Chinese New Year or a happy hour sponsored by our Persian colleagues.” MedImmune’s emphasis on nurturing different perspectives is “exemplified not only in our robust, innovative pipeline, but also in the large number of high-impact journals in which our scientists have published,” says Jallal. 

To lead and inspire

Since becoming head of MedImmune in 2013, Jallal says she has learned the importance of setting the tone and leading by example. A typical day for her starts at 5 a.m., but she has always made it a priority—and encourages this among team members—to have dinner together with family. Jallal and her husband have two daughters, ages 19 and 23. By rising through the ranks at MedImmune, Jallal says she appreciates the broader perspective she has gained as part of the senior executive team—and helping AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot  turn around the company and return it to growth. 

Through it all, Jallal has nurtured three bedrock qualities in her leadership: visionary, entrepreneurial, and collaborative. “I always say to my team, ‘Anyone can manage, but few can truly lead,’” she says. 

To inspire others, a leader must set a bold, long-term vision and then chart a course that keeps employees engaged. Jallal says that her fearlessness in taking risks is a trait she encourages in fellow employees. “This industry isn’t for the faint of heart, but the reward is delivering potentially lifesaving medicines for patients,” she says. 

Jallal’s fierce determination and encouraging leadership style has been praised far outside the pharmaceutical industry, too. In 2015, Jallal was recognized by Vogue Italia as one of 16 women of integrity. In that story, Jallal channeled her mother: “Ever since my daughters were children, I have told them never to apologize for being smart and to always seek knowledge.” 

 

Kathleen Raven is a freelance health writer. She can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @inkkr

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