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Anne E. White, president, Lilly Oncology, talks about how the lessons she learned from leading a startup helped her to speed Lilly’s drug development from target identification through successful launch
Anne White first joined Eli Lilly and Company as an engineer supporting projects in the company’s research laboratories. She quickly became fascinated with the clinical trial process and didn’t waste time in convincing the leadership to move her to that area. From there, she went on to hold various roles in drug development across a number of therapeutic areas, including neuroscience and infectious diseases. But once she became part of the oncology business, she “never wanted to move from it,” she says. Nearly 30 years after entering the company as an engineer, White now leads Lilly’s oncology organization, overseeing the R&D of its later-phase oncology pipeline and its commercial activities, including global marketing and North American sales.
White took a break from Lilly in 2005 when she set up a small oncology company, Tigris Pharmaceuticals. Serving as Tigris’ chief operating officer and vice president, clinical operations was a rewarding experience in terms of the speed and agility with which she could work, she says. “There’s definitely something about being able to focus on just a few medicines that obviously leads to speed.” She adds that the importance of knowing when there is enough data to make a good, well-thought-out decision is something that she learned in the startup space, “because there’s a price to being indecisive or slow to make decisions.”
At the same, she missed the expertise that she had access to during the first part of her career. Having seen how things work from the small company perspective, she learned to appreciate more “how helpful and valuable, particularly in drug development, it was to have the expertise that you get within the walls of Lilly.” At its peak, Tigris consisted of eight people. “You had a lot of use of consultants and other people to gain information on how to proceed,” White explains. “That’s not the same as having all that knowledge in the same company with you, helping you push forward.” Also, her time at Tigris involved doing a lot of business development with other companies, and this further convinced her of Lilly’s special appeal. “There is the integrity, the transparency we have about our data and how we design studies. It became clear to me that Lilly operates at a higher level of excellence than many.”
After five years with Tigris, White reached out to Lilly again, but she wasn’t sure of the return path. But she was flattered when Lilly’s then-CEO John Lechleiter quickly said, “You have to come back. Take your learnings from Tigris and help us make Lilly better.” So in August 2010 she returned as senior director, global strategic planning and patient tailoring, oncology, becoming a vice president in oncology two years later.
Lilly gave White a major opportunity to draw on her startup experience working with speed and agility when she was tasked in 2014 with expediting the company’s drug development efforts. “Our CEO had noticed that Lilly was falling behind the median with regard to the time it took us to bring a drug to market,” White explains.
During the next four years as vice president, Lilly Research Laboratories, she led efforts to reduce Lilly’s drug development time from an average of 11 years to under seven years. Like other pharma companies, Lilly was hampered by the ongoing struggle to find patients to enroll in their trials. White and her team began a number of approaches, including using social media differently, making it easier for patients to be screened for studies, and revamping the company’s approach to partnering with advocacy groups. It was no small endeavor, she says. “It wasn’t like we suddenly went from 11 years to under seven,” White told Pharm Exec. “We assessed our progress six months at a time, and every time we did the data run, I held my breath until I saw we were still making progress.”
She admits that pharma’s drug development process has gotten quicker overall—“The median keeps dropping for the industry as a whole, so Lilly wasn’t unique in this.” But White adds, “I think we are unique in how quickly we moved to get ahead of the median and it is now a competitive advantage.”
White’s prior experience and success at Lilly Research Laboratories made her the right candidate to apply those acceleratory principles specifically to oncology. Current CEO Dave Ricks told her, “Oncology is probably the area where we need the greatest rate of speed.” The importance of this was further underlined to White when Lilly had a cancer drug that was taking “a little bit longer than I would’ve liked for development,” she says. A patient’s family reached out to Lilly to get access to the drug before it was approved; fortunately, the company was able to get the drug through to them via compassionate use mechanisms. “But it struck me that if we’d just been three months faster, that family would have easily been able to get the drug through the normal channels,” says White.
She adds, “Patients talk of wanting to make it to their children’s weddings or see their grandchildren being born. These moments matter, even if you can’t find a cure. If you give people time to achieve some of those milestones in their lives, it means the world to them. That’s really what grabbed me about working in the oncology area, and we’ve done a lot of things to make things happen faster.”
One example is the recent launch of Lilly’s Retevmo, the first therapy specifically developed for patients with advanced metastatic rearranged during transfection (RET)-driven lung and thyroid cancers. Lilly gained the rights to the RET inhibitor after the organization acquired the Connecticut-based biopharma Loxo Oncology in February 2019.
Retevmo, which had entered clinical trials in May 2017, went on to achieve FDA approval in just three years (May 8, 2020), representing the most rapid timeline in the development of an oncology medicine with multiple indications. Since approval, of course, White and her team have had to negotiate the launch of Retevmo amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Probably the biggest challenge associated with this, she says, was preparing for the ASCO Annual Meeting in June. “We had just a few weeks to shift to a completely virtual experience, including creating a virtual booth, changing all our customer meetings to video calls, and making sure all the scientific presentations were recorded,” she explains. “We had to put in some long days ahead of the meeting to ensure proper planning and execution in this virtual environment.”
But now White hopes that congresses will continue to offer a virtual option in the future, after the pandemic. “Virtual congresses are more attainable for people who cannot afford to travel, especially to places outside of the US,” she says. “If we can maximize participation at those meetings, I think the whole oncology community will benefit. Meetings such as ASCO are essential for people to find out about new data.”
White feels that her group was actually among the quickest to adapt to the new way of working things during the pandemic. “We’d already had to move to virtual peer-to-peer programs because our physicians didn’t have the time to travel to programs and things like that. It wasn’t as much of a hurdle as it could have been if we didn’t have that dynamic.” But she concedes, “we would have never dreamed of having a non-in-person product launch for Retevmo if the pandemic hadn’t forced us to do it differently.”
White is proud of the number of cancer medicines she’s had the chance to work on in her career, whether that’s as oncology group president, project manager or clinical development leader. “I’ve contributed to six launched oncology medicines, as well a number of indications beyond the original one. I think that is pretty powerful in the world of cancer,” she says.
Another source of pride are the leaders White’s had a chance to mentor, sponsor, or promote over the years. “I’ve been a people leader now for all but the first two years of my career,” she says. “In the company, there are several people I mentored early on who are now at the vice president level. That’s a legacy—it makes you think you helped to make a broader difference at the company.”
White continues to be passionate about promoting and encouraging new talent. She was awarded the Lilly Women’s Network Award for her efforts in mentoring and supporting women in the workplace and she is the executive sponsor for Lilly’s LGBTQ community.
“Another big to-do for me in the next few years is to continue to make Lilly a very inclusive place,” White explains. “We just did a survey of our LGBTQ employees, which said we have made progress in helping this community feel embraced and welcomed at Lilly, but there is a lot more to achieve.”
Having built a meaningful legacy and served a total of 25 years at Lilly, White still has an undiminished passion for her work. She remains fascinated by oncology, by the unmet need and the opportunities. And she is still open to new challenges. “I’m a big fan of Lilly, so if the CEO asked me to lead another area, I’d certainly do that,” White says. For now, though, she still has plenty to do.
Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.