Patients as the North Star

November 16, 2020
Julian Upton

Julian Upton is Pharmaceutical Executive’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2020, Volume 40, Issue 11

Matt Ros, EVP, chief strategy and business officer of Epizyme, talks to Pharm Exec about his career in oncology and his role in transforming an epigenetics R&D company into a fully integrated commercial business.

Just out of college with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, Matthew (Matt) Ros started selling photocopiers door-to-door, cold calling on accounts in Upstate New York. He soon switched to healthcare, moving to Burlington, VT, to sell health insurance. When he learned from friends and colleagues in pharma about “the enthusiasm with which companies were helping patients and physicians,” he set his sights firmly on joining the industry. This he achieved in 1990 when he was hired as a rep in the oncology division of Mead Johnson Labs, part of Bristol Myers Squibb.

Having no pharma industry experience at that time, he “jumped right into the oncology world and began selling all sorts of chemotherapies.”

Ros would stay with BMS for 17 years, working in divisions such as sales management, marketing, franchise strategy, and business development, before becoming senior director of oncology marketing. He says his time at BMS was an “unbelievable experience—I really learned from the best.”

With these skills, he then moved to Boston to work for a small-cap biotech, ARIAD Pharmaceuticals, as SVP of commercial operations, where he functioned as co-architect of global commercialization and development strategy for their oncology programs.

He returned to big pharma three years later, joining Sanofi’s cancer business as associate vice president and global commercial lead. When Sanofi acquired Genzyme, Ros stepped outside oncology for a time to become one of the first employees to join Genzyme’s rare disease business. He served as global franchise leader for Pompe disease for two years before returning to Sanofi’s oncology division, this time as chief operating officer and vice president.

Ros believes that his career benefited greatly by taking the opportunity at Genzyme to work in the rare disease field. There, he led the commercial, medical affairs, clinical development, and lifecycle management strategies for the orphan-drug Pompe disease treatment Myozyme, and implemented its first global Pompe disease awareness campaign. But, with most of his 30-year career spent in oncology, he acknowledges that “people would call me an oncology person.”

Ros adds, “I would say going into oncology is something that I decided early on. It was rooted in some family experience; I lost my grandmother to cancer when I was a young boy. When I had the opportunity to join BMS in 1990, in some respects, it connected me to the loss of my grandmother. It was very important to me that I could help to enhance the lives of cancer patients with the medicines I was offering to the community.”

Advancing Epizyme

Ros eventually came to the attention of Epizyme, a company founded in 2007 “to rewrite treatment for cancer and other serious diseases through novel epigenetic medicines.” Epigenetics is a broad biological regulatory system that controls gene expression without altering the makeup of the genes themselves. Epizyme has pioneered the discovery and development of small molecule inhibitors of histone methyltransferases (HMTs), histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and helicases, which regulate gene expression.

When Ros met with Epizyme CEO Rob Bazemore, the two “immediately clicked.” He says, “I knew he was the person that I wanted to work for.” Ros duly joined Epizyme as chief operating officer in May 2016. His responsibilities would range from commercial, CMC, and program management to IT, facilities, corporate affairs, and investor relations, and even, for a time, clinical operations. In August 2018, he became chief strategy and business officer. Since joining, Ros says he is proud to have helped transform “a company anchored in epigenetics R&D into a fully integrated commercial business.”

In January 2020, Tazverik (tazemetostat), Epizyme’s epithelioid sarcoma (ES) therapy for patients aged 16 or older, became the first FDA-approved EZH2 inhibitor and the first-approved treatment specifically indicated for ES patients. Just six months later, FDA approved the supplemental new drug application for Tazverik for adult patients with relapsed or refractory follicular lymphoma (FL), whose tumors are positive for an EZH2 mutation and adult patients with relapsed or refractory FL with no satisfactory alternative treatment options.

Innovating for patients

Ros has seen some significant changes during career, but one industry development he has particularly welcomed is the shift toward patient centricity. “There’s a more appropriate focus on the patient community now, and more patients are interested in how companies go about their decision-making,” he says. “Companies are more focused on integrating that patient perspective in how they think about developing their medicines, whether that is in relation to clinical trial design or sharing outcomes with patient communities.”

For Epizyme, the patient community “serves as our North Star,” adds Ros. “It has guided all those values that are woven into who we are as a company—collaboration, innovation, openness, camaraderie, discipline, patient-focused, and resilient.”

COVID-19, of course, has been a major disruption to this ongoing progress. “I don’t know if the pandemic is the biggest challenge the industry has faced, but it certainly ranks near the top. It took us by surprise as a global community,” says Ros. “Just seeing what it has done to patient communities, how it has affected patients managing their healthcare, is a wake-up call. It has made me reflect on the impact on a patient who is ready for their next treatment, only to be told by their physician, ‘I can’t bring you in because of the circumstances related to COVID,’ or ‘We may have to delay this another week.’ It is hard to imagine the level of anxiety that a patient in that situation is going through.” Ros believes that “we probably won’t understand the full impact of COVID on patients like this for the next two to five years—at the very least.”

Ros does, however, feel proud about how the industry has responded to the pandemic, “how it is doing everything in its power to manage the crisis in the best way for patients and doing this outside all the political rhetoric.” Also, he says the forced rethink of the industry-patient dynamic presents an opportunity as much as a challenge. “It requires us as an industry to be creative about how we educate patient communities and how we talk to physicians about treatment options,” he says. “I’ve certainly seen and appreciated how we’re trying to innovate through this, how we continue to reach our customers, despite their offices being largely off limits.”

Right now, Ros is thinking about the next five years and how Epizyme can evolve as an organization. “In the near term, we want to be incredibly successful in the launch of Tazverik in the US for the two indications we received approval for,” he says. “Then we can continue to develop the drug in multiple indications in both hematologic malignancies and solid tumors.” The company’s Vision 2020 plans also look to growing the pipeline, with at least three new product candidates in clinical development, and further establishing the company’s leadership in the field of epigenetics and chromatin remodeling in oncology to enable long-term, sustainable business growth. “It’s important to maintain the respect of those in epigenetics and ensure that our approach as a company is grounded in science,” says Ros. “At the same time, we need to remain firmly focused on the patient community and delivering Tazverik to them.

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

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