Habib Bennaceur: Following the Science

March 7, 2020
Julian Upton

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 40, Issue 3

AstraZeneca’s Habib Bennaceur talks about the key transitions in his career-from local to global-and his current role in positioning AZ’s Farxiga as a drug with the potential to impact the lives of both patients with and without type 2 diabetes.

Multiple Perspectives, a Singular Aim: Pharm Exec talks with AstraZeneca’s Habib Bennaceur about the key transitions in his career and his current role as global vice president, diabetes (orals), in positioning AZ’s Farxiga as a drug with the potential to impact the lives of both patients with and without type 2 diabetes

 

Habib Bennaceur trained as a medical doctor at the University of Algiers in the 1990s, but his first role in pharma was as a sales representative for Pfizer Algeria in 2002. Soon afterwards, he became a product physician for cardiovascular (CV) and neurology, and in 2006 was appointed Pfizer Algeria’s CV product manager. The following year, Bennaceur joined AstraZeneca (AZ) France as medical project manager. At AZ, he has taken on

roles with increasing responsibility, for example, as regional medical director in Maghreb, where Bennaceur led a medical department reorganization and headed up a team covering Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. He was appointed president of AstraZeneca Algeria in 2013 and North West Africa president in 2014, in both roles spearheading a campaign to build collaborations with health authorities in the Maghreb region through R&D initiatives, patient support programs, and international projects.

A change of focus saw Bennaceur move to the UK in 2017 as AstraZeneca’s global vice president, Brilinta, the company’s blood thinner, before taking his current role leading the commercialization of Farxiga. An SGLT2 inhibitor originally developed for the treatment of type-2 diabetes (T2D), Farxiga (Forxiga in Europe) is now also being positioned to treat heart failure and chronic kidney disease (CKD) both in patients with and without T2D. Pharm Exec sat down with Bennaceur to talk about how he has navigated his career transitions from medical to commercial and “local” to global, and how Farxiga will be featuring strongly in his future activities.

 

PE: Having trained as a medical doctor, your first role in pharma was as a sales rep. At AstraZeneca, you would make a more decisive move from a medical to a commercial role. How did you find making that transition?

Bennaceur: The opportunity to put patients first and follow the science is the reason I joined pharma as a physician. It is fantastic that AstraZeneca valued my prior experiences, giving me the opportunities to develop from a medical role to a commercial one, which is quite unique. It was a smooth transition for me. AZ is committed to putting patients first and basing all its decisions on science. All the functions are working toward the same vision, the same goal, so it seemed a completely natural move.

PE: What would you say were your key achievements working for AstraZeneca in the Northwest Africa region?

Bennaceur: You cannot achieve anything externally unless you have the best people working for your company. So, a top priority for me was making sure capabilities were upgraded and brought up to international standards, and, not least, position AZ as an attractive place to work in the area. It was also about reinforcing relationships with scientific societies and, especially, the healthcare authorities to position AZ as a true partner in improving healthcare and patient health management in the region.

What I’m particularly proud of is the oncology strategy I was able to implement in Northwest Africa. In collaboration with the local authorities, we were able to shape the healthcare system and environment to have the greatest impact on the lives of people living with cancer. In Algeria, for example, we aligned our strategy and

action plan with the Ministry of Health’s national Cancer Plan. We really worked hand in hand with the healthcare authorities and with academia to improve the management of cancer in Algeria. First, we put an emphasis on clinical research in oncology to provide Algerian patients whose alternatives were limited with innovative molecules. We did this by forging partnerships with state-of-the-art research institutes, such as the Gustave Roussy Institute. We implemented lung cancer diagnosis platforms-the first ones in Algeria-and we raised women’s awareness of the necessity to screen for breast cancer. We also created a home care network dedicated to patients at the terminal stage.

PE: What are your priorities now as AstraZeneca’s global vice president, diabetes (orals)?

Bennaceur: I have the privilege of working cross-functionally with talented colleagues around the world, setting and implementing the strategies that will have the greatest impact on the millions of people living with diabetes and intersecting diseases, such as heart failure and chronic kidney disease.

My primary focus is developing commercial strategy, but I work in collaboration with global colleagues in R&D, medical, and in-country teams to then translate strategy into action. Ultimately, my goal is to continue to build our innovative diabetes portfolio, making sure we put in place the right strategy to benefit patients both today and for

the next decade and beyond.

Farxiga is playing a most exciting role in this, because we have consistently had new indications and new data for the drug. It was initially approved by multiple regulatory agencies to be used in the treatment of T2D. However, a few months ago (October 2019), FDA also approved it to reduce the risk of hospitalization for heart failure in adults with T2D and established cardiovascular disease (CVD) or multiple CV risk factors. The approval was based on results from the DECLARE-TIMI 58 CV outcomes trial. So, where Farxiga was a drug specifically for diabetes patients, we are now positioning it as a treatment to improve the management and the lifestyle of patients with and without T2D who are suffering from heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), based on the landmark Phase III DAPA-HF trial. And this year, the CVD-REAL study highlighted the potential of SGLT2 inhibitors such as Farxiga to prevent chronic kidney disease progression in patients with and without T2D and to treat the cardio-renal complications often faced by people living with T2D.

This presents a huge opportunity for us and for patients with heart failure or CKD with or without T2D. We are talking about millions of patients and, currently, a high death rate. What we at AZ have to do, as well as doing this right, is make sure that the scientific community and the healthcare professionals clearly understand that Farxiga is not only a T2D drug, but can also change the life of patients without that disease.

PE: What for you has been the key learning in moving from a regional perspective to a global focus?

Bennaceur: What was challenging was the need to develop a dual mindset, focusing on the short term and the long term at the same time. As a country president, your long-term perspective is very different from that of a global role; it’s more like three to four years. When you come to a global position, you need to make sure that you are doing everything right in the short and medium term, but you also need to be looking seriously at the challenges you will be facing in 10–15 years’ time. I think adopting that mindset was the biggest stretch in moving from country manager to a global role, but at the same time it is very exciting.

 

Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mmhgroup.com

 

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