A Steward of Science

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-06-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 6

Building on a lifelong passion for biomedical research, and then its application in policy and health equity as a leader in various interconnected settings, Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of BIO, is uniquely positioned as a “translator” for science and social advocacy—and speaking stakeholders to action.

Michelle McMurry-Heath, MD, PhD, became the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s (BIO) third president and CEO on June 1, 2020. We checked in with her one year after her appointment to provide an update on BIO’s activities, as well as expand on the experiences that she brings to bear on her leadership of the world’s largest advocacy association serving the biotech industry.

Early inspiration

McMurry-Heath’s interest in medicine, science, innovation, and policy started early in her childhood.

“I saw firsthand all of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into childhood immunizations and clean water and access to education and nutritious foods, as well as access to healthcare,” she told Pharm Exec. “All of those things are critically important, but at the end of the day, there are so many illnesses that plague poor communities that have absolutely no good solutions today.”

McMurry-Heath’s immediate family was very involved in the health issues of their Oakland, Calif., community. Her mother was a public health nurse; her father was a psychologist, who also managed programs for communities that couldn’t afford care; and her grandmother ran a nursing home health company.

McMurry-Heath took these experiences with her to Harvard University, where she earned BAs in biochemistry and molecular biology. There she learned how innovators think. Working in labs, she experienced the excitement around creating a new scientific discovery. She then went on to a combined MD-PhD (immunology) program from Duke’s Medical Scientist Training Program, becoming the first African American to graduate from the prestigious program.

“It sounds almost comically fortuitous, but I had a year where I was breeding transgenic mice, and I was bored because I didn’t have much to do other than move the cages once a week,” says McMurry-Heath. To fill the void, she took policy and medical anthropology classes, learning about NIH grants and areas of medicine that were well-funded, and areas of medicine that weren’t. In addition, McMurry-Heath’s first husband had cystic fibrosis and participated in a clinical trial as his disease progressed.

“All of these things really brought home, in a very personal way, how biomedical research is not a ‘nice to have’ for so many families, but it’s ‘a must have, and I can’t have soon enough’ element to their lives,” she points out.

Policy pivot

It was during this time that McMurry-Heath left the research bench and began a 20-year career in policy. She started as a senior policy advisor for Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) for health, social, and biomedical innovation policy, then eventually became founding director of the Aspen Institute’s Health, Biomedical Science, and Society Policy Program; associate director for science of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH); J&J worldwide vice president, regulatory and clinical affairs and global head of evidence generation; and most recently, vice president, external innovation, regulatory science, and executive director, scientific partnerships, JLABS@DC.

When McMurry-Heath started her position at BIO, in the midst of both a medical pandemic and cultural crisis of social injustice, she was able to lean on her interest in and excitement about science, her many years of policy experience, and her deep understanding of the roots of healthcare inequities, to jumpstart needed initiatives. Now, one year later, McMurry-Heath is leading the annual BIO event into its second virtual/digital conference, monitoring and advocating the ever-changing policy landscape to support its constituents, and continuing to take advantage of current events to spark real change toward eliminating healthcare inequities.

Last August, BIO introduced its BIOEquality Agenda, the organization’s response to address systemic racism in the US. The BIOEquality Agenda, according to McMurry-Heath, originally started as a voluntary program and was received so positively that it soon became a full BIO initiative. The tenets are to promote health equity, invest in the current and next generation of scientists, and expand opportunities for women and other underrepresented populations.

The first tenet relates to diversity of clinical trials, as well as access to the medicines that come out of the R&D pipeline. For example, McMurry-Heath pointed to BIO’s advocacy to increase the federal match for Medicaid for COVID treatments, therapies, and diagnostics. “The Medicaid rates in the states were just growing so incredibly quickly, and the states were really buckling under that pressure,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that that was not a rate-limiting step in getting patients coverage for COVID.”

The second tenet promotes visibility of industry-sponsored minority training programs, diversity in the workplace, as well as the creation of a “pipeline” for biotech to draw upon. McMurry-Heath says, “I was fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of a United Negro College Fund Merck fellowship when I was in graduate school. And I know many of our large companies have been investing in a major way in training and advancing minority and female scientists and entrepreneurs.”

However, McMurry-Heath shares, with individual company support and training, only those companies “have line of sight to who they are,” leaving well-versed diverse professionals untapped, for example, in an acquisition or unaware to the large pool of the smaller companies (90% of BIO members are small companies).

To that end, the organization is creating a “LinkedIn type setting,” says McMurry-Heath, where individuals will be visible to the smaller BIO firms that are limited in their ability to invest in minority-related training programs, yet need access to the benefits and talent of a diverse ecosystem.

The third tenet takes advantage of the BIO Business Solutions Program, a group purchasing initiative that gives the power of large-scale negotiation to BIO’s small organizations. McMurry-Heath says they are currently uncovering ways to highlight companies within that program that have prioritized diversity, or are minority-owned or women-owned businesses, to enable others to choose them and help promote and expand diversity that way.

The tenet is also behind BIO building out its diversity data among its membership to begin to identify trends and opportunities to build inroads on gender, racial, ethnic, and LGBTQ advances. “We’ve been able to serve in almost a consulting capacity to our member companies to help them think about these issues in a broader way,” says McMurry-Heath.

A shared vision

BIO is composed of four areas of membership: emerging biotech, health biotech, industrial and environmental biotech, and food and agriculture biotech. While McMurry-Heath admittedly speaks a lot about the health biotech space, because that is her background, she does see similar trends across the four groups, for example, the use of bacteria to metabolize environmental waste in agriculture.

“You can see how science can open a door that we’ve been pounding on as a society for years,” says McMurry-Heath. “And yet, so many people are deaf to what science can add. And that’s my passion. That’s my calling. That’s what I still work toward every day.”

McMurry-Heath apparently shares that calling with many BIO members. At the conclusion of her and the staff’s fact-finding mission of its board of directors and over 1,000 member companies, in developing its future strategic vision, it unearthed a common sentiment.

“We are trying to improve and smooth the path to innovation, not just for innovation’s sake or for science’s sake, but because it has the power to address these huge human needs and to do so in an equitable manner,” says McMurry-Heath.

The subsequent outcome of these conversations became the basis of the five pillars of its strategic vision, released last October. The BIO website describes the five pillars in depth. The first is translated short form to “be a voice of science and force of science and for science.” The remaining four pillars are:

  • Unite and empower biotech innovators and their ecosystem to improve lives.
  • Remove barriers to innovation.
  • Champion broad access to biotech breakthroughs and scientific quality.
  • Catalyze resilient and sustainable bio-based economies.

McMurry-Heath believes the time is now to take advantage of these pillars, given the current environment around biopharma and science. “The good news is we’re seeing bumps of 20 to 30 percentage points in terms of public opinion of the biopharma sector. That is not to be ignored. And it’s over other scientific enterprises like academic science or government science, for example, so it shows that we’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “But part of what we have to do is establish a new, credible conversation with the American public. Part of establishing that credibility is being out there honestly.”

To McMurry-Heath, that means to unapologetically advocate on behalf of science leading the way. “Science is such an important tool in policymaking, and in the rest of our lives,” she says. “Many people enjoy the benefits of innovation but are not even aware of how it’s already improved their lives.”

Leadership traits

As far as qualities that make a good leader, McMurry-Heath comments: “There are some elements of leadership that are absolute—kindness; taking time to understand the people you’re working with; building collaborative teams that are not just a uniform type around the table, but actually have diversity, not just of the classic categories, but of thought and perspective, and that complement each other; and listening to all stakeholders throughout your leadership chain.”

With her history as a leader in various settings—government, nonprofit, corporate, and regulatory—McMurry-Heath says she draws on those combined experiences to act as a translator. “I try to translate from one community to another because all of those communities need to come together to improve health.”

McMurry-Heath and BIO are likely connected by kismet at this juncture—where the positive effects of science are so visible in our quality of life (or lack of equality) in the global, interconnected COVID experience. McMurry-Heath has the opportunity to allow BIO to lead many conversations and use her experiences as a translator to speak many stakeholders to action. She laments the fact that there are no cures for diseases that disproportionately affect poor communities—stroke, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, lung cancer—and that burden of illness continues to drag down these communities.

“Science can really help us address equity in many different forms,” she says. “And if we don’t get science right, all of our other social justice efforts will be for naught. I truly believe that.” 

Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at lhenderson@mjhlifesciences.com.

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