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‘Whole self’ approach to life and leadership keys passion for helping patients.
Susan Pandya, MD, vice president, clinical development and head of cancer metabolism global development oncology and immuno-oncology at Servier Pharmaceuticals, always knew she wanted to be a doctor, and she was drawn to oncology because of the many different disciplines involved: surgery, pathology, radiation, molecular biology. She also appreciated the intimate connection with patients in this area.
“You could argue you have the same situation in many different disciplines,” she says. “But many of these patients are on the frontlines of their mortality. They’re fighting, and they very much want a partner in that fight. As an oncologist, we’re there to partner with patients and their families. We’re able to provide the support that they need, so that whatever the path may be, they’re not alone. Even in the most difficult circumstances, I know that there’s more we can do for our patients. I think I was able to bring that to the bedside, and now in my work within industry as well.”
Pandya transitioned from academic clinical practice to industry in 2012. She was working at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston, where she had completed her residency training in internal medicine and then a fellowship in hematology/oncology. She practiced for about four years, specializing in gastrointestinal malignancies and breast cancer, and co-directed the Phase I experimental therapeutics program. That’s where she was drawn to the idea of industry, where she could have a bigger and broader impact for patients.
With a new career path in mind, Pandya transitioned to Acceleron Pharma (which was acquired by Merck in 2021). The position of medical director, clinical research, interested her because the company’s first oncology asset was in Phase I/II development across a variety of solid tumors, so it complemented her experience in academic practice. After one year of successfully carrying the asset into a randomized controlled study in kidney cancer and developing a new study in hepatocellular cancer, she was promoted to senior director, clinical research.
“It allowed me to really immerse myself in the day-to-day of managing a clinical program on the industry side, which was highly complex,” says Pandya. “I had underappreciated the cross-functional nature of the work that goes on behind the scenes in an industry role. So I had to learn quickly, move quickly, adapt, and collaborate. It was a wonderful training ground for me to learn the ins and outs of drug development.”
Two to three years into her role at Acceleron, the company strategy started to shift away from oncology to rare muscle diseases. At that point, she was approached by Agios Pharmaceuticals—an organization just two blocks away from Acceleron in Cambridge.
“I knew I wanted to stay focused in oncology,” says Pandya. “That was a big reason for why I had moved on from patient care. I wanted to carry forward their voice and the mission to do something on behalf of patients with cancer in an industry role.”
Agios focused on a number of hard-to-treat cancers, including cholangiocarcinoma (CCA). This was a disease that Pandya had treated in her clinical practice, and her own uncle had died from the disease just four months earlier. At the time, there were no targeted therapies available to CCA patients harboring the IDH1 mutation, and limited chemotherapy options were available for patients with advanced disease. She welcomed the opportunity and challenge to contribute.
Pandya managed, mentored, and empowered a team across the early phases of ivosidenib’s development, and developed a pivotal late-phase study that was registration-enabling and led to the eventual FDA approval of Tibsovo® (ivosidenib tablets) in IDH1-mutated CCA. “This approval is something that brings me a lot of gratitude and makes me feel very lucky to have been in a position to help bring a much-needed new therapeutic option to patients,” she says.
In parallel to her effort in CCA, Pandya assembled a team and led the clinical development of another key asset in the IDH portfolio, vorasidenib, from early phase studies to a late-stage development program in IDH-mutated low-grade glioma, a type of primary brain tumor. Her team continues to investigate other difficult-to-treat cancers, including chondrosarcoma.
As Pandya assumed greater managerial responsibility, the company recognized that she would be an asset to the hematology portfolio. So her whole team expanded into Agios’ flagship hematology programs, which produced the company’s first approvals and initial success in acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
On April 1, 2021, Servier, an independent, privately held US pharmaceutical company focused on oncology, launched by Servier Group, acquired Agios’ oncology business, welcoming Pandya’s talented oncology team. “I’m happy to report that we’ve seen the success of these programs continue to grow here at Servier,” she says.
Pandya now leads a team of 17 people and counting. She also has expanded her work to include a new program in Servier’s metabolic oncology area for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), in addition to overseeing the clinical program management and IDH clinical biomarker teams.
Pandya appreciates that at Servier, a unique global organization governed by a nonprofit foundation, reinvests 20% of its total revenue into the development of both its programs and its people. “We have less of the pressure of publicly facing companies and more of the flexibility and ability to apply a patient-first approach to drug development,” she says.
Because Servier is an international organization, Pandya is learning more about the global and regulatory framework of operating globally—utilizing the resources and network of an established global pharmaceutical company while operating with the nimble and entrepreneurial spirit of a biotech. As the company continues to expand its presence in the US, she appreciates its ability to be agile and creative, and welcomes the opportunity to grow in tandem.
During her decade in industry, Pandya has witnessed a transformation in the speed with which clinical development is accomplished. The ability of companies to collaborate and the many forms of data and technology now available have contributed to the increased momentum. This fast pace requires an investment in ongoing education; for Pandya, that means reading, attending scientific conferences, and leaning on external experts in an advisory capacity.
With a drive to always do more, Pandya is sometimes challenged with how to organize competing priorities. “There’s so much to do, and there’s this desire to do it all at once,” she says. “I have to think carefully and thoughtfully about what can move forward, where we should be applying our energy and our focus, and where we can let up a little bit.”
Tuning into her team and their needs is also important, especially when that team has almost tripled in size. Pandya knows she needs to keep them motivated and feeling empowered and trusted to do their best. She straddles a fine line between monitoring their progress without getting too involved. To hone these skills, she works with a professional leadership coach and participates in women’s leadership forums where she can exchange ideas. She also bounces ideas off her colleagues at Servier.
With increasing demands at both work and home, and a desire to constantly accomplish tasks faster, leaders need to extend grace to themselves and to their teams, she says. “I think it’s important to say, ‘No, I can’t make that meeting because my daughter has [an event]’ or ‘Why don’t we slow things down? It seems like we’ve had a front-loaded week and I can tell you all need a break,’” she says. “I try to be open and honest with my team in such a way that gives them permission to take the time they need and ask for the flexibility they need.”
Pandya also finds it beneficial to be authentic. “What I hope to bring to the table [as a leader] is this desire to bring my whole self, acknowledging that what [my team] sees is just a small part of my life; there’s something much bigger than that,” she says. “[My family] comes first, and that’s important to message, for people to understand where I’m rooted and what matters most to me.”
When it comes to spending time with her family, Pandya enjoys connecting with her husband, two children (12 and 10), and new puppy during Friday family movie nights and through skiing, hiking, running, and family vacations. “My hands are full, but I like to just be together and relish those precious moments,” she says.
Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.