‘We are only beginning to tap into the potential of mRNA technology’

29 Sep 2022

Orlaith Gavan. Image: Pfizer Healthcare Ireland

Orlaith Gavan’s career has taken her from clinical practice to industry. She tells us about her current work at Pfizer and the ‘next wave of scientific innovation’.

Orlaith Gavan is chief medical officer at Pfizer Healthcare Ireland. In this role, she leads the medical function for the organisation, setting strategy and outlining vision as a member of the senior management team.

Gavan has been with the company for more than 16 years in a variety of roles across regulatory and medical affairs, both in Ireland and internationally.

Prior to joining Pfizer, she was head of regulatory affairs at the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) in Brussels, and started her career as a radiation therapist working in cancer centres in Ireland and the UK.

‘As a global biopharmaceutical company, the pace of change in our industry is always a challenge’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

As a global biopharmaceutical company, the pace of change in our industry is always a challenge. The speed of innovation is continuous and the need to deliver medicines, therapies and treatments that benefit patients is our key priority.

A key challenge for the industry is access to new medicines. Science has made significant strides over the past 100 years, with scientific innovation in medicines helping to increase life expectancy.

Looking ahead, I am really excited about gene therapy, which has the potential to offer eligible patients with rare genetic diseases a transformational clinical benefit and improve quality of life.

Gene therapy development is a complex task, requiring specialised and novel methodologies, as well as a high level of expertise. The real challenge is integrating it into a health system model that is based around ongoing treatment. Significant policy and regulatory changes are required to ensure patient access to these therapies.  

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The potential for new scientific breakthroughs and innovation through further application of mRNA technology is critical and something which really excites me. Pfizer’s extensive experience with mRNA technology is unique and we are also engaged with the biology of disease, essential to leveraging technology to drive impact for patients.

If we look at how far the industry has come through its development of Covid-19 vaccines, the progress is remarkable. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and just six days later Pfizer signed a letter of intent with BioNTech to co-develop a potential Covid-19 vaccine.

Over nine months, Pfizer and BioNTech successfully delivered one of the most ambitious vaccine development programmes in history. The project’s speed and precision were made possible by seamless collaboration across countries. Teams worked together to scale up manufacturing and meet the ambitious goal of manufacturing 3bn doses of the vaccine by the end of 2021 in an effort to address the pandemic.

On an annual basis we invest around $10bn into research and development, which is key to unlocking the next generation of breakthroughs for patients. I firmly believe that we are only beginning to tap into the potential of this technology. The next wave of scientific innovation is upon us, and Pfizer is working hard to harness the power of mRNA and unlock its full potential.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Working as a radiation therapist in leading cancer centres in both Ireland and the UK provided me with a solid clinical grounding and expertise in the areas of oncology and patient care. While it is an innovative profession with constant technological advancements, at the same time you can build positive, nurturing relationships with patients on a long-term basis at what can often be a very stressful and traumatic time in their cancer journey.

I further expanded my network internationally in the area of oncology when I took a role as head of regulatory affairs at the EORTC in Brussels, a unique organisation whose mission is to coordinate and conduct international translational and clinical research to improve the standard of cancer treatment for patients. This was a significant move as it opened new opportunities, working with all the leading biopharmaceutical companies globally.

Relocating back to Dublin, I was keen to secure a role with Pfizer and since 2006 have worked in several roles with increasing responsibility across regulatory and medical affairs until my appointment as CMO last year. I thrive on change so working in an organisation that is constantly evolving and is fast paced keeps me energised and motivated.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Leaving clinical practice, relocating to Brussels and moving into a completely new sector in my early 20s was a huge career risk. One thing I have learned is that career progression entails taking risks.

I enjoyed the work, travelled a lot and embraced the responsibility, leading teams and working on several key drug registration programmes at the EORTC with major biopharmaceutical companies including Pfizer. I am so proud to have played a part in the registration of several breakthrough cancer treatments which have benefited so many patients across the globe.

What one work skill do you wish you had?

Given we are in a digital-first age, I would say having sharper digital skills. I am really impressed by our Gen Z colleagues who have grown up with the internet and who wholeheartedly embrace all things digital. In Pfizer Healthcare Ireland, we regularly host knowledge-sharing sessions where colleagues can learn about anything from TikTok to Twitter. I am a regular attendee at these useful sessions and I’m constantly learning!

It’s also been fascinating to see the impact that digital has had on healthcare. Digital disruption has revolutionised how individuals, including healthcare professionals and patients, experience services and consume information and this need has been further accelerated by the global pandemic. Digital requires the biopharmaceutical industry to adapt and presents many new opportunities for our sector.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Clear communication, establishing trust, as well as colleague recognition are the most important elements which I live by as a leader. Also, building a team that complements each other’s strengths is key as diversity is a crucial element.

Our medical organisation is made up of colleagues with diverse backgrounds and experiences, which ensures we have a well-rounded skillset and is vital for our success.

What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

Be confident, yet humble and don’t be afraid to embrace failure. Also, trust your intuition. In my experience, it never lets me down.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Generally speaking in the biopharmaceutical industry, it’s a diverse sector and there is a lot of varied roles. Companies tend to have significant footprints across the globe and workforces tend to be very diverse – reflecting the patients they serve.

This is certainly true from a Pfizer perspective. In 2020, our global CEO Albert Bourla laid out a series of goals to demonstrate the company’s dedication to equity by increasing diversity and inclusion. These goals focus on improving Pfizer’s internal culture, helping to provide equitable access to our vaccines and medicines, and committing to the corporate responsibility of promoting equity around the world.

In terms of inclusivity, it is a multi-faceted issue and should emanate from the culture of any organisation. Employees and employers must prioritise diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), and more importantly create an environment in which all colleagues are seen and heard.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

There’s a couple of books that stand out that I’ve read recently. To mark Pride month in June, our DE&I resource group sent every colleague a copy of The Queens’ English, which is a really witty reference guide to the LGBTQIA+ community’s contributions to the English language. This was an enjoyable read and I learnt a lot!

I also really enjoyed The Danish Way of Parenting. It’s interesting to read about the different styles of parenting in different cultures and I picked up some useful tips.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I put my balancing act success down to my support system, a very supportive husband who is also juggling a busy career, and a wonderful family who give me flexibility when I need it.

Wonderful colleagues and friends at Pfizer are also key and I am extremely fortunate to have wonderful parents who I thank for my strong work ethic and who are always there to help when I need it. As a mother of three young children, flexible working is hugely important and helps as I work toward a good work-life balance.

Bed early is an absolute must for me during the week and I can’t be without my morning cappuccino and my iPhone. To switch off, British Vogue and a glass of red wine are my favourites.

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