Christi Shaw, until Thursday morning the executive in charge of Eli Lilly’s drug division, will become the CEO of Kite Pharma, the unit of biotechnology giant Gilead that is focused on treatments that genetically engineer patients’ white blood cells to attack cancer.
Shaw said she was inspired to take the job because that type of treatment, known as CAR-T, is what she wants to focus on.
“I really felt like it touched my heart,” Shaw said in her first interview about the move. “And I’d like to get back to something that is transformational — an innovation that can cure cancer.”
The feeling, she said, is personal: She left a previous job as the president of Novartis, in 2016 to take care of her sister, who had the blood cancer multiple myeloma and was undergoing an experimental CAR-T therapy to try to treat it.
Shaw told Fortune that the move was unplanned, and that the company’s human resources department reacted in horror, saying, “We don’t have anyone to replace you.” But Shaw felt she had to be with her sister, even if it meant taking herself off a clear track to become a CEO. Her sister died. But Shaw told an audience at the Forbes Healthcare Summit last year that she found a note: “You did so much for me, and we got so much more time together.”
It was because of that experience that she even took the phone call from Gilead in late May, Shaw said. She said that her time at Eli Lilly has been shorter than she would like, and that she’s proud to have led three successful drug launches while there. She was initially resistant to the idea because she didn’t think her husband would want to move. But she went on a family trip last week, and signed the employment contract this Sunday.
Gilead announced that Kite would function as a separate unit in May. That, and Shaw’s hiring, represent the first big decision for Gilead chief executive Daniel O’Day, who was previously a top executive at Roche. He is under pressure to articulate a new plan for the company, which has been under pressure as its hepatitis C treatment Harvoni, which had one of the biggest drug launches in history, has been under pressure due to competition from rivals.
At Novartis, Shaw was responsible for the launch of the psoriasis drug Cosentyx, and was involved in the decision to in-license Novartis’ CAR-T technology. At Kite, she will face the challenge of restarting a product launch in a category that has not yet lived up to very high expectations. Gilead announced that it would buy Kite in August 2017 for $11.9 billion. Yescarta, the company’s first CAR-T therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, generated sales of $96 million in the first quarter of 2019, compared to $40 million in the first quarter of 2018.
Shaw said that she always knew manufacturing CAR-T cells, which must be made individually for each patient, was going to be a challenge. But she has been surprised how hard it is to get insurers to pay for all the associated costs, to raise awareness among patients that the therapy exists, and to make sure that patients’ don’t bear related financial hardships from having to travel and stay at hospitals far from home to get the highly technical treatment.
“It shouldn’t happen,” she said of patients’ not getting access to the treatments. “If this can save your life it shouldn’t happen.”
Shaw said that Gilead had decided to make Kite a separate unit because O’Day thought that the burden of integrating a very different company, focused on cancer cell therapy, into Gilead, was only slowing down progress. The idea, she said, is to keep it “independent, but not isolated.”