Q&A: Sanjeev Luther, Rafael Pharmaceuticals

Rafael Pharmaceuticals President and CEO Sanjeev Luther shares insights about his experience at the company and how he focused on a relationship-first strategy to shepherd the company’s main compound, devimistat, from near-failure into Phase III trials.

Pharm Exec: Can you outline your role at Rafael Pharmaceuticals?

Sanjeev Luther: I’m an entrepreneur type, and I’m used to diversifying my experience to make sure my time and talents are being spent making a difference. I have actually spent the most time at Rafael Pharmaceuticals compared to any other company in my 30-year career. I have been with the company for seven years. The reason behind that is because of how much potential I see in devimistat as a treatment option in rare and hard-to-treat cancers.

Lately, it seems like we’ve been announcing new milestones every week, so we are continuing to see progress and share exciting news for the patients and their families who eagerly await new treatment options. We’ve also been able to solidify great achievements, like having nine Orphan Drug Designations across the US and the EU — the most of any oncology company. For me, it comes down to the fact that the story isn’t over and everyday there’s a new challenge and a new way to continue pushing devimistat along.

How did you assess the company before you joined?

I wasn’t sure about the potential of Rafael Pharmaceuticals when I was presented with the opportunity, but I immediately saw that there is passion in everyone on the team. As far as the compound itself, I was able to learn more about the mechanism of action and realize the true potential behind devimistat. Once I had that understanding, it was clear that turning the ship around would be a challenge, and I knew that we had to implement key changes.

What was the most important factor when you decided to pivot the strategy?

The most important thing to take into consideration is the patients. For many of the cancers devimistat is being studied for, there is a small patient population and even fewer treatment options, especially when patients are faced with relapsed cancers or new diagnoses on top of previous cancer diagnosis. I restructured our strategy to have a newfound focus on relationships with our primary investigators and their patients. I spent time connecting with them to learn about their experience on the frontline, treating these devastating diseases and hearing about their experience firsthand. That helped me drive everything — from the way we set up our sites to the way I continued to keep in touch during each phase of the trial.

Have we made progress in pancreatic cancer and hard-to-treat cancers?

There are a number of companies working on pancreatic cancer treatments. Like any cancer, there are different stages and mechanisms of action that can be successful. From my perspective, we have made an immense amount of progress in the time I’ve been focused in the oncology space.

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being featured at the World Orphan Drug Congress, and for the first time, they had a track specifically dedicated to rare cancers. It’s amazing to see how the advances in research and development have continued to grow. With that growth, me, and the other members of my team at Rafael Pharmaceuticals cling to hope for the future. A future with therapies and a future where cancer is not as intimidating of a diagnosis as it is today.

How do you see the future of this industry?

I see the industry moving in the direction of keeping patients at the center while balancing the opportunities we have in the digital world. The way things have shifted, turning patient care to telemedicine, as well as the evolution of the way doctors hear about new therapies, I see the industry taking off more than ever before. I see a future with innovation. There are so many impressive strides being made in every facet of oncology, it is my hope that each day we step closer to finding safe and effective cancer treatments.

www.rafaelpharma.com