A Mission of the Heart

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 11

Christi Shaw, CEO of Kite, is working hard to bring cell therapy to the masses, fueled by her family’s personal experiences with cancer.

Christi Shaw is no stranger to hard work. The Midwest native who grew up on a working farm in rural Iowa now rolls up her sleeves every day at Kite, a Gilead Company, to develop and commercialize CAR-T cell therapies for oncology patients. As Kite’s CEO, she is thrilled to offer patients hope in a potential cure—something from which she wishes her family could have benefitted. Her unique view on the patient journey and her dedication to helping others continue to drive her efforts to improve these therapies and make them more accessible.

Set up for success

Waking up at the crack of dawn to tend to cattlemight not be how you picture a young biopharma CEO. But Shaw spent her early years fixing fences, baling hay, and pulling rocks out of the field. “Whatever it took to run the farm and the house is what we did,” she says.

As Shaw’s hard-working parents operated the farm as a side business, she looked up to them as role models. Off the farm, her father worked in corporate America. Her stay-at-home mother, who grew up on a farm like her, was always busy giving to family, neighbors, the church, and schools and later started a business of her own.

But it was two high-school teachers who nurtured Shaw’s interest in biology and chemistry. Combining her love of science with the examples of running a business and giving back to others from her parents, she felt like pharma could be a natural fit. While in high school and as the first person in her family to go to college, she worked as a pharmacy technician in order to gain practical experience. Upon graduation, Shaw was recruited by Eli Lilly and landed a job on the commercial side as a product detail representative based out of Oshkosh, Wisc. Lilly also helped her obtain her MBA from the University of Wisconsin.

After working as a detail rep, Shaw moved on to more senior positions at Lilly, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), and Novartis before she joined Kite. Though she’s been in oncology for almost 13 years, she has crossed at least 12 different therapeutic areas in a variety of functions. This diverse experience has given her unique perspectives as a leader.

“Back when I was in the field, we were called product detail reps and you were the only person in that territory,” she says. “You answered medical questions, commercial questions, reimbursement questions. There weren’t all these pieces to the pharmaceutical industry. It was really a one-stop point person for physicians, the community, and pharmacists. So my entree was [more] broad-based and cross-functional in nature than how we have a sales rep role today.”

In addition to commercial and clinical development, Shaw was able to dip her toes into legal, compliance, human resources, finance, and even medical devices over the years. “When people go up through the function and [then want to] be the CEO, it tends to be very difficult if you haven’t seen how the other eight functions work beyond your own,” she says. “[Seeking multidiscipline experience] is one of the things I highly recommend.”

As part of her cross-functional journey, Shaw sometimes had to make lateral moves to break into new areas, but she always kept the big picture in mind. For example, during a consolidation at J&J, she volunteered to take a lateral staff assignment focusing on commercial analytics, research, and business development—areas she hadn’t worked in before—rather than remain vice president of the newly combined commercial business. “That got me a lot more breadth of experience,” she says.

While she had always been demanding of these functions, Shaw now was able to experience the demands placed on her. Knowing people’s individual functions also helped her to understand and appreciate their diverse perspectives. Though she may have once questioned some of their decisions, once she crossed over, she was able to gain empathy for their insights. “I could take a step back, and when I asked questions, seek to understand a lot more,” she says.

Life lessons in patient treatment

Shaw’s first foray into cell therapy was at Novartis, where she led the North America Oncology business.

Her real education, however, came in a much more personal way. Shaw’s older sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2013. In May 2016, her sister had exhausted all the therapies that were approved commercially. At the time, Shaw was US country head and president at Novartis, based in New Jersey. She was able to direct her sister to the people who had access to clinical trials. Her sister eventually found a Phase 1 trial for CAR-T therapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and enrolled.

Despite being at the top of her professional game, Shaw made the bold move to step back from her position at Novartis to care for her sister. “Having lost my mom to breast cancer, I wanted to do everything I could to try to make sure my sister lived as long a quality of life as possible,” she says. “I had so many regrets [about my mother]: Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I get her somewhere else besides rural Iowa? It seemed like I was so courageous [stepping down to care for my sister], but in fact, I had learned from my mistakes.”

For two months, Shaw stayed with her sister at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Philadelphia. She was able to see firsthand what patients and their care providers go through. She herself was drained from the flurry of questions that needed to be answered and paperwork that needed to be completed. She witnessed the difficult task of managing medicines, when her sister received a pill one day that came in a different color, causing confusion. The experience took Shaw’s dedication to patients to a new level.

“It’s just so hard for patients to navigate when they’re so sick already,” she says. “After going through that, it just never leaves you to think, what undue burdens are we placing on patients and their caregivers and families? And how does not just our therapy but what we do connect to the whole system? How are we helping or hurting patients on their journey?”

Eventually, Shaw’s sister’s disease progressed, and she decided to seek a donor transplant. While Shaw wasn’t a match, her younger sister was. It was time to step back yet again and let her other sister take over.

Opportunity knocks

With the word circulating through professional networks that Shaw was available to return to pharma, she received a phone call from Lilly. She welcomed the opportunity to rejoin her former company in Indianapolis, which was close to both her sisters in Chicago and St. Louis. As senior vice president and president of Lilly Bio-Medicines, Shaw oversaw nine different disease states, thousands of employees, and one of the largest business units at the company. The position also offered a span of Phase II through commercialization responsibilities instead of just individual functions.

“It is hard to go back to an individual function when you’re used to having the breadth of teamwork, so that intrigued me,” she says. “I had a dual motivation of going back to running a big business in a team environment and being near my sisters.”

Shaw felt she would stay at Lilly until she retired, but then she received a call from Gilead, Kite’s parent company, to come aboard as CEO in 2019 after her sister passed away the previous year. She welcomed the opportunity to find a way to get the company’s promising CAR-T therapy treatments to patients. “When you know what your passion is and what you want to do, the fact that I could potentially help bring cell therapy and cures for cancer to the world was really compelling to me,” she says.

Kite’s currently approved therapies, Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel) and Tecartus (brexucabtagene autoleucel), have shown potential for a cure for some lymphoma patients, with five years of durability data. In April, FDA approved Yescarta as the first CAR-T therapy for initial treatment of relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma (LBCL)—the first improvement on standard of care in nearly 30 years. (Last month, Yescarta was approved in Europe for use in second-line diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and high-grade B-cell lymphoma.)

Tecartus was approved in July 2020 as the first and only approved CAR-T therapy for relapsed or refractory mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), and in October 2021 for relapsed or refractory B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The one-time treatments involve extracting a patient’s cells, re-engineering them, and infusing them back into the patient. About half the time, the body cures itself.

“We literally have two-thirds of our 3,500 employees in our manufacturing labs taking people’s lives in their own hands,” says Shaw. “Most people—even within our own company—thought there’s no way to bring this to the world. It’s too labor intensive. Patients are located too far and wide. Yet here we are three years later.”

Today, Kite operates in the US, Europe, Australia, China, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. The company has treated 15 times more patients than it did before Shaw’s arrival. There are now over 10,000 people who have been treated. “There are just so many people that have been affected positively by the therapy,” says Shaw. “Before I came here, everybody thought this was science fiction. But it is reality now.”

Looking toward the future of cell therapy, Shaw highlights the need for improvement in three key areas: communication, science, and global access. Even where people are eligible, only two out of 10 currently receive it. To grow this number, Kite is educating community physicians and patients directly that this therapy could be a potential cure. By continuing to advance the science behind CAR-T, Shaw hopes to improve the efficacy rate and understand why certain people experience side effects. Future research efforts to increase patient accessibility and speed include looking at “off-the-shelf” CAR-T using donor cells.

Recent journal articles touting the success of cell therapy in disease states beyond cancer is also hopeful. “Being able to harness someone’s own immune system to treat their own diseases, across multiple diseases, is the way that we’re going to help cure some of the diseases we have,” says Shaw.

A renewed outlook

One of the key learnings Shaw and her sisters experienced during their journey was that not everybody has the ability to connect to clinical trials like they were able to. The cost of travel to the care center, lodging, meals, and transportation to and from the treatment site can be expensive. To ameliorate this issue, Shaw and her younger sister started More Moments More Memories. The foundation provides a travel, lodging, and meals program to help patients who don’t have the financial means to access clinical trials.

“We always talk about how many more moments we can give patients for lasting memories,” says Shaw. “I thought we’d give them one more special event or maybe a few more months of life. To my surprise and happiness, it’s been five years and two-thirds of the patients are still alive. That’s been extremely rewarding.”

In addition to managing the foundation, she and her younger sister travel back to Iowa periodically to check in on the family farm that is now partly rented to local farmers and partly in conservation. Overseeing the operations keeps her grounded. “We go back a couple times a year,” she says. “Sometimes we have to tear down a shed, sometimes we have to do things to upkeep the farm, like cutting brush, and sometimes we just take time to enjoy the area. We’re always brought back to our humble roots.”

Whether in Iowa or her current home of Southern California, Shaw makes sure to leave time for family. When she has the chance, she enjoys golfing with her husband and 14-year-old son, who is currently trying to join the junior PGA.

“Going through these experiences [with my family] has made me think about where I can best spend my time each day,” she says. “I wouldn’t say my job defines me; it’s a piece of who I am. I just happen to be very lucky that my job is part of my true north and part of my life.”

Each day, Shaw prioritizes her most important responsibilities, which could be her son’s sporting event over her job. “COVID has taught us that your job isn’t 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. anymore,” she says. “I may need to pick up my son at 3 p.m. and go to his sporting event. But I’ll be back online in a few hours. It’s never balanced, but it’s being at the right place at the right time where you feel like you’re most needed, wanted, and you would have no regrets.”

Elaine Quilici is a freelance content specialist based in New Jersey. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of Pharmaceutical Executive.