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Physician-scientist turned Big Pharma medical chief sees fruits of labor.
You could say that prior to joining Pfizer, Aida Habtezion, MD, MSc, FRCPC, AGAF, had already done it all. She had a large, translational laboratory whose research was funded by federal grants from NIH, the Department of Defense, and various foundations. She is a tenured and endowed full professor at Stanford University, and was an associate dean for academic affairs in their school of medicine. She had a clinical practice in her specialty of gastroenterology and hepatology. Habtezion is an elected member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians, the Allen Distinguished Investigator, a fellow of the American Gastroenterological Association, and serves on the New York Academy of Sciences Board of Governors, the Executive Board for the International Science Reserve, and is the current president of the American Pancreas Association.
She clearly has had a very accomplished and admirable career at a very senior level.
The opportunity to become senior vice president, chief medical officer, and head of worldwide medical and safety at Pfizer found Habtezion in the fall of 2020. She learned a lot about the company not only from its center-stage profile during the pandemic but through her interviews with Pfizer leaders, learning about their purpose, four core values, and transformation. In these discussions, she felt an alignment with her world to change patients’ lives.
“As a physician-scientist, how we translate science is very important. I liked clinical practice, and I loved my science,” says Habtezion. As a physician, her patient population presented with inflammatory diseases that impact the gastrointestinal tract. This includes diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and pancreatitis, where there are no current therapies in the latter. In addition, with Habtezion’s practice in tertiary centers and a referral center, she saw many patients directly impacted by health inequities and disparities. “They would present with the worst outcome or present late,” she says. “To bring therapies to the type of patients that I took care of, where there was non-response, no cure, or therapy, that translation was important to me. That’s why I took this path into pharma.”
Habtezion’s position as chief medical officer, which she officially started in January 2021, is broad, covering all therapeutic areas. She also is responsible for ensuring that Pfizer’s stakeholders—physicians, healthcare providers, and regulatory agencies—are provided with the necessary information on the safe and appropriate use of Pfizer medications and vaccines.
In early November 2021, Pfizer announced the launch of its Institute of Translational Equitable Medicine, or ITEM, which was conceived of and launched by Habtezion and members of the pharma giant’s worldwide research, development, and medical team. The goal for this new program is to use data to help Pfizer understand the drivers of health inequities, and how their scientific discoveries can meet the needs of underrepresented and minority patients both nationally and globally. This, again, ties back to her desire to address the unmet needs of underrepresented groups in health.
Habtezion is most proud of fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a professor. “Although I thought it was going to be in the small country where I was born in East Africa,” she says. Growing up, her parents focused on education, and she wanted to go into one of the STEM fields. However, medicine wasn’t on her list because she was afraid of needles and would faint at the sight of blood as a child.
It was science that brought Habtezion into medicine. In graduate school and research with experimental models, she realized she was asking clinical questions. She didn’t like to see people suffer and realized the solutions were found through science and medicine. Habtezion conquered her fears and took the physician-scientist’s pathway, though she says it’s a tough one that takes a long time and demands persistence and balance in both fields.
Habtezion, as a woman of color, believes most institutions, be they industry or academia, have a gap for women at the senior level. While there are many qualified women on the ladder, it’s climbing the ladder that is also the issue.
She believes some of this can be solved through mentorship. “Mentorship is something we do all the time in academia because it’s part of our pillars, to train and teach the next generation,” Habtezion tells Pharm Exec. “You can mentor someone based on the science, an aspect of the work, or clinical bedside teaching, as a physician, and so on. There is also career mentorship, which is trying to understand what the trainee needs, what they want, and where they want to be. [It’s important to] help them navigate and provide the appropriate links and networking abilities. Even if it’s not in your area of expertise, if you are at a senior level, you can point them in the right direction.”
Mentorship, Habtezion believes, is a feedback loop. For example, one of her mentors advised her that when she gets a rejection on a grant, or a negative comment or score on a grant, to read it once, and put it away.
“Because you need to deal with yourself—your emotions and feelings—and basically sleep on it,” she explains. “When you come [back] and read the comments, they are actually good feedback, and it ends up being a better product the next time. It builds resilience.”
What Habtezion is finding in her new role in industry, again, is the similarities to her past.
“I always thought of the patients who failed to respond to the intervention, and I would worry about what would happen as they try different treatments, waiting for the next day, how is my patient doing?” says Habtezion. “My patients would ask what I learned from my and others’ research. Is there anything coming up in the pipeline for me? Or they would show me a report on clinical trial and ask if it would be a therapy that they could go on.”
Now, says Habtezion, she’s still worrying, but she is hopeful. “Being at Pfizer, we have such a broad portfolio, my worry is now ‘will the therapy reach those who really need it urgently and reach them in time?’ But now I feel that I can contribute on this side. There is just so much similarity. It’s almost like it was on purpose that I came to transition into this role.”
Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec's Group Editorial Director. She can be reached at email@example.com.