We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Liz Barrett, President and Chief Executive Officer of UroGen Pharma, to discuss the battle against Covid-19, silver linings and the opportunities and challenges she expects to see in the upcoming year.
- You could say that Covid-19 is the world’s “common enemy.” Do you think this battle is changing perceptions of the industry?
LB: Absolutely. Covid-19 has brought the industry itself closer together, leading to improvements in speed and collaboration. Whether public or private, big or small pharma, we are showing that we can streamline innovative collaboration and decision-making to fight Covid and bring new treatments to the market at record speed without compromising safety or quality. Overall, critical studies are being done quicker and we are navigating through the regulatory framework with increased dexterity.
We also know that Covid-19 is changing the public’s perception of the pharmaceutical industry for the better. For the first time in a long time, those outside the industry are noticing that companies put people above profits. A recent Harris Poll found that 40% of Americans have a more positive view of the pharma industry than they did before the pandemic. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go to educate the general population on the value we bring. We are an industry that exists to improve human health and save lives — it’s really that simple.
- What silver linings, if any, are we seeing during the pandemic?
LB: While navigating Covid certainly has its challenges, I like to think that there are some positives to the situation, such as an increase in charitable work and spending more time, safely, with loved ones. Personally, my family and I are working to give back to our community, whether driving patients to doctors’ appointments, delivering meals or grocery shopping for others. At this time, elderly people are especially isolated and don’t have a lot of interaction with others. One of my favorite stories happened as I was driving a lady to her doctor’s office when she told me, “Pull down your mask, I want to see what you look like.” She missed the joy of fully seeing others.
Another positive is that many are now acknowledging that working from home can be successful and productive. UroGen has always been flexible, but this time allows us to grow as a community and gives us a chance to think and focus on employee diversity, especially now that we have proven we can work differently. As we approach this new year and new world, our main challenge will be to not go back to business as usual but, instead, take advantage of and continue to embrace things that we have learned.
- The industry has been responsible for some big advancements recently, but what are you most excited about moving forward?
LB: The advancements made in oncology over the past decade have been remarkable. Just think about what immunotherapy and cell therapy have meant for patients. We are now able to successfully treat diseases that five years ago were death sentences. And it’s not just oncology where we have seen recent medical breakthroughs. The industry found a cure for Hepatitis C and developed gene and RNA therapies that offer the potential to cure diseases, but also to replace years of expensive and in some cases, ineffective alternative treatments.
One thing I am looking forward to is the further breakthroughs in the complex landscape of Alzheimer’s. We have an aging population and we still haven’t figured this disease out. We look at the science and say, “it should work,” but then it doesn’t. The general population doesn’t realize the amount of times we have failed, and the resources expended in search of an effective treatment. But our industry is not giving up and with a renewed focus — hopefully we will unlock the code to finding new solutions.
- With a new year on the horizon, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges?
LB: One of the biggest opportunities for UroGen is to move beyond our first approved treatment and to continue to grow the company. Our mission is to build novel solutions to treat specialty cancers and urologic diseases because patients deserve better options, and with the approval of our first treatment we are addressing a significant unmet need for patients battling a rare form of cancer. As we move into Phase III with a second investigational therapy and look to build out a robust pipeline, we will continue to focus on high unmet-need diseases in urology & gyn/GI cancers.
A big challenge for industry overall will remain pricing and regulation. Drug pricing is always a challenge, and I worry that it will continue to dominate the public and political debate. It’s time the policy community takes a step back and looks at the healthcare system in total, not just pharmaceuticals. We also know the 340B Drug Discount program is one of the most significant issue facing the industry because it is being used more broadly than intended, increasing discounts and taking precious resources away from innovation. Our industry is committed to ensuring that every patient that needs our medicines has access to them and from a policy perspective, the challenge is how to provide access to medicine in a way that’s understandable and responsible.
- As you look ahead, what is the impact you are trying to make? What do you hope UroGen’s legacy to be?
LB: We had a great year with our first prescription treatment getting approved and our second investigational treatment ready to enter a Phase 3 pivotal trial. Moving forward we want to continue to tackle the underrepresented challenges that other companies may not be addressing. Rather than take UroGen where numerous companies are already focused, such as breast cancer, we want to identify those diseases that are being left behind and show advances in areas where there hasn’t been in many years. For me, my hope is that ultimately UroGen will have brought treatments to patients that were once forgotten.
Liz is an industry leader with extensive experience leading business organizations and Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies. Prior to UroGen, Liz was CEO of Novartis Oncology and served as Global President of Oncology at Pfizer Inc.