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Sebastian Guth, President of Pharmaceuticals, Americas Region for Bayer, shares the company's long-term vision.
We recently interviewed Sebastian Guth, President of Pharmaceuticals, Americas Region for Bayer, on his one-year anniversary in this position under which the company has made several announcements that further support its larger and long-term vision. Guth told PharmExec, “We are at an inflection point where breakthrough science is transforming care almost daily. Bayer had to make a clear choice between pushing the boundaries of science, investing in the big bets, or staying in the here and now. And we've made our choice and are convinced that science and innovation are the way to go. In many ways, the decisions that we have made are already being reflected in our portfolio and pipeline today.”
In recent weeks, Bayer has secured collaboration agreements with 11 digital health startups aimed at longer-term development of specific digital solutions to improve patients’ health in the fields of cardiovascular diseases, oncology, ophthalmology, pulmonology, radiology as well as digital therapeutics. The 11 startups were selected from 750 applications from 65 countries.
Another funding for innovations has also come from Leaps by Bayer, established in 2015, and is the vehicle with which Bayer invests in breakthrough ideas and innovation across all businesses. In August, Bayer announced that it would acquire the remaining 59.2% stake in BlueRock Therapeutics in which its Leaps by Bayer division had originally invested back in 2016. BlueRock, which specializes in engineered cell therapies in neurology, cardiology, and immunology was purchased for about $240 million up front with an additional $360 million payment based on certain development achievements.
Additionally, in mid-October, Bayer launched LifeHub UK to accelerate and optimize disease detection and data-driven drug discovery by developing artificial-intelligence-enabled imaging solutions. The new hub is the seventh pillar of Bayer’s global network of LifeHubs and will build on radiology and the company’s longstanding knowledge and expertise in the medical imaging field.
For pharmaceutical therapies, Guth says one of his objectives is to support transformational ideas that are focused on cures. This is illustrated with recent investments made in the Leaps division, including BlueRock as one example, but others include Century Therapeutics, which Guth says complements the activities of BlueRock in the oncology space. Others include, Pyxis Oncology’s tumor microenvironment-based technology to identify immuno-oncology targets, and Khloris Biosciences, which is using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to trigger a robust immune-response involving innate and adaptive immune cells toward anti-cancer vaccines. “These are examples of big dreams and big ideas that really push the boundaries of science. Leaps makes significant investments, and frankly, it's just amazing science and bold moves that we're supporting,” said Guth.
With so many biotechs and so many early stage discoveries out there, Guth said the decisions in which to invest, in many ways, goes back to the people. “It’s fundamentally a human pursuit and it’s the people that we look at very carefully when deciding where to invest and where not to invest. It's their expertise and their capabilities. It's the experience they've gained in a particular space over the years, and it's also the composition of the teams and it's the culture that we see at work at those companies,” explained Guth. And, whether the company is large or small, Guth said the partnering capability-the sense of how Bayer will be able to work with the respective teams of those companies to bring ideas forward-is part of the due diligence conducted prior to investing. “Culture is critical. We have a lot of experience in collaborating. When you speak to folks outside of Bayer, we're recognized as a company that has a track record of strong partnerships. And it's part of the due diligence we do before we decide whether we can build one of these strong partnerships.”
“The whole area of patient centricity and being ‘customer obsessed’ is something I've been very passionate about for quite some time,” explained Guth. But it was his experience with his father’s passing from lung cancer that “stuck a greater chord” with him. “With my father's illness and ultimately passing away from lung cancer over two years ago…and going through that experience-not as a pharmaceutical executive-but as a son, as a family-the loss reinforced the necessity to put emphasis on [patient centricity].” Guth explained that the language that the pharmaceutical industry uses is difficult, “for patients to really understand what it is that we talk about and to translate that into words that make sense. It's an area that matters to me and, and something that I believe is important in our corporate strategy.”
Bayer’s Patient Insights and Engagement (PIE) network helps Guth channel his patient centric visions, as he is one of the executive sponsors of the work that comes out of the network and across the company. PIE itself is a group of people embedded across the different functional areas of Bayer including but not limited to, research and development, medical affairs, market access, and commercial. “In many ways, [PIE] is the voice of patients in what we do in those functional areas.”
PIE is built on four pillars, listening, understanding, acting and responding. It has established a patient advocacy and advisory council, which integrates patients into Bayer’s development process, by physically sitting down with researchers and colleagues in development to ensure that their point of view and relevant endpoints are incorporated into Bayer clinical trials. Guth added: “Overall, we're seeing a significantly greater focus and the importance of patient reported outcomes in the clinical trial work that we do.”
In addition, Bayer recently announced a national joint partnership with the National Kidney Foundation to build the first patient network in chronic kidney disease. The objective is to collect patient data to better design patient educational resources and more targeted patient-centered clinical trials.
Another example is Bayer’s significant investments in precision oncology, particularly around patient education and activation. Guth said Bayer has invested $70 million alone in 2019 in activities that focus on driving the uptake of genomic testing in cancer. Bayer’s Test Your Cancer campaign www.testyourcancer.com – launched in May – features patient stories, educational materials including a brochure, patient-doctor discussion guide, and fact sheet describing what occurs during a genomic cancer test, and more.
Bayer also holds sessions each quarter where teams engage one-on-one with patients. Guth said, “It's amazing how much I learn every time I sit down with patients. For example, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with Keith, a patient with very late stage salivary gland cancer, who was basically told by his physician that he had three weeks to live. He was then initiated on our VITRAKVI therapy [indicated for the treatment of adult and pediatric patients with solid tumors that have a neurotrophic receptor tyrosine kinase (NTRK) gene fusion]. This was three years ago, and he described how the tumors melted away and how he knew when he went for his first scan after the therapy had been initiated that it would look so much better because he could feel the tumor mass shrinking. It’s those conversations that ground us in what it is that we do. It’s amazing.”
Guth believes that it’s not only the scientific breakthroughs that will improve patient health and outcomes, but also technological innovations. “I honestly believe that AI has tremendous value in patient conversations, particularly in identifying the right medicine at the right time and frankly much faster to the appropriate patient,” said Guth. “In the United States, post-mortem research is suggesting that about 10% of all patient deaths are attributable to a late or wrong diagnosis. That's a massive problem.”
Guth believes that the purpose of deep learning technologies and artificial intelligence at large is to help physicians diagnose significantly earlier and at times, more appropriately, with initiation of the right treatment. He noted the work Bayer is doing in chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) and building an algorithm deploying deep learning technologies to help physicians identify this disease significantly earlier. Last December, the FDA granted Breakthrough Device Designation to the artificial intelligence software for Chronic Thromboembolic Pulmonary Hypertension (CTEPH) Pattern Recognition, which Bayer is currently developing jointly with MSD (tradename of Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, N.J.). CTEPH affects an estimated eight to 40 people per million globally, and is difficult to diagnose because it’s rare. Its symptoms are similar to those of other lung diseases and physicians may not always recognize it. As such, radiologists usually have the first opportunity to identify CTEPH in patients; therefore it is vital that they recognize CTEPH indicators on images.
“In our mind, we are well-positioned to do that successfully because we understand the biology and are also growth market leaders in diagnostic imaging in radiology, in contrast agents specifically and in fluid delivery systems and technology in the radiology space. So we have access to aid with expertise in imaging and access to a vast amount of images. So we're able to construct training data sets,” added Guth.
Having accomplished a great deal already in his first year as president, Guth has additional goals for the future. They include:
“I came in through the acquisition of Schering back in 2006 as head of strategy in Business Development and pricing for Schering in Europe. And relatively quickly after the acquisition, I was offered the opportunity to lead our business in Turkey. And at that time, I was fortunate to not only spearhead the pharmaceutical business, but was also given the opportunity to lead Bayer’s business at large and across both the health and nutrition space, as the most senior Bayer representative in Turkey at the time. And that was honestly a tremendous opportunity. It helped me understand relatively quickly the breadth of Bayer and the incredible work we were doing, both in pharmaceuticals but also outside of pharmaceuticals,” says Guth.
Guth believes his growth opportunities reinforced two core approaches that remain critically important to him as a leader – the willingness to listen and learn and to not fall into the trap of judging too quickly. “As I go back to that period, it was when we laid the foundation to what the company is today. If you look at simply, for example, just the sheer size of our company today and the size at that time, you know, it's vastly different. We've grown considerably, both culturally and in terms of our portfolio,” said Guth.
Another model that Guth follows is that experiences shape a person’s beliefs, which drive behaviors and help people achieve results. “We may wonder why we're not creating different results, but it may be because we need to create new experiences that allow for new beliefs,” said Guth. Therefore, to work on culture, Guth says he tries to create different experiences that support a change in beliefs and behavior toward results. “I put a lot of my emphasis over the last 12 months on building a culture that supports the drive and the results we want to see,” said Guth.