The business unit director, oncology, Merck UK & Ireland talks about the future of his company and the UK industry

What is your current role and background?

I am delighted to have recently joined Merck’s UK & Ireland leadership team as Oncology Business Unit Director after being with the organisation for the past eight years. It’s a really exciting opportunity and time to help lead Merck into its next stage of development as a global oncology leader. Over the past 19 years I’ve worked across the pharmaceutical industry in a variety of sales and marketing roles, but I have always maintained a keen interest in science, having gained a PhD in chemistry from the University of Nottingham before entering the industry.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

No two days are ever the same! Merck’s UK oncology footprint is continuing to expand, and we have a mission to be the collaborative oncology company that harnesses science, to help transform patients’ lives. I’m currently putting a lot of focus on medium- and long-term strategic planning to help achieve this ambition and grow our footprint. This includes looking at how we operationalise our alliance with Pfizer over the coming years to continue to bring innovative immuno-oncology medicines to NHS patients. Of course, I’m still keeping an eye on what we need to achieve to ensure we reach our current short-term objectives too. So far, I think I’ve been able to keep a good balance and the team I work with are dedicated and working hard to support me and the business.

How do you keep your workforce motivated?

We have done a lot of work recently on embedding accountability and ownership for projects into the UK & ROI oncology team, which Merck has recently identified as a priority to optimise our business performance. If you can build the trust within the team to challenge each other and have the difficult conversations, you can understand how people and processes can be adapted to improve performance and make a real impact. We have been able to make some simple changes to how the marketing and field work together and communicate with each other, as well as improving cross-functional collaboration, which I can already see are making a difference to the team.

Merck was one of the first commercial organisations to begin collaborating with the National Cancer Vanguard through the flagship ‘pharma challenge’ programme – how is this going?

I think the ‘pharma challenge’ project Merck has supported is a real success story, and has helped both set an unprecedented opportunity to improve the pharma-NHS collaboration model, whilst also allowing for Merck to be a true partner in helping redesign NHS services and care to help deliver a financially sustainable NHS whilst improving patient care.

The aim of the project was to look at how NHS resources can be used more effectively, whilst improving quality, reducing unwarranted variation in care and, most importantly, establishing a more accurate understanding of the patient experience during their treatment, placing a focus on colorectal cancer.  With the medicines utilisation and pathway variation workstreams now completed, we have been able to demonstrate differences in pathway costs and resourcing which can provide areas for savings within the NHS, if the best performing and most cost-effective practices were followed. We also showed that there is scope to use modern technology to engage with cancer patients which allows them to provide data that can provide insights on their wellbeing with their clinicians. We now hope that the learnings from the National Cancer Vanguard can be spread across the UK, perhaps through the emerging cancer alliances.

Avelumab was recently launched in the UK for Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC) – what’s next for Merck in the immuno-oncology (IO) landscape?

We are currently awaiting the Final Appraisal Determination from NICE for avelumab as a treatment option for metastatic MCC (mMCC) – an extremely rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. We are also working with the Scottish Medicines Consortium to ensure that patients in Scotland will be able to have access to this medicine.

Beyond MCC, we intend to build upon our alliance with Pfizer, which focuses on bringing innovative immuno-oncology medicines to patients in hard to treat tumours. Current trials are investigating effects in gastric, ovarian and bladder cancers. We are currently exploring both monotherapy and combination therapies, and it’s very exciting to be at the forefront of this work as one of the first companies with a licensed immuno-oncology medicine. We are hoping to be able to announce a series of clinical data milestones over the coming year related to our IO pipeline.

To help expand Merck’s pipeline of IO medicines, we have also recently built on our strategic collaboration with the UK biopharmaceutical company F-star to develop and commercialise five bispecific IO antibodies.

One-fifth of Merck global healthcare venture capital is invested in the UK – why has the country been such an attractive proposition to the firm?

Maintaining the UK’s world-leading science base is critical for any investor choosing to invest in research collaborations and start-ups in the UK. As far as Merck’s wider business is concerned, the UK is an important market and we have a strong presence in the UK spanning all our business sectors – healthcare, life science and performance materials – across 14 sites, employing over 1,500 people.

Do you believe Brexit may have an impact on this?

Merck respects the results of the referendum and remains committed to our investment in the UK. Nonetheless, Brexit presents challenges for Merck’s operations in the UK and the EU, given the shared regulatory frameworks, integrated supply chains, internationally diverse workforce and pan-European research collaborations that are integral to our business. The EU and the UK should agree to focus, in particular, on solving the issues around medicines as early as possible in the negotiations in order to protect patient safety and public health. Appropriate transitional arrangements need to be put in place, both to ensure that all European patients can continue to access their medicines without disruption, and to support business continuity.

What has been your greatest achievement since joining the firm?

Over the past three years we have been able to secure funding and reimbursement for cetuximab in metastatic colorectal cancer and recurrent and metastatic head and neck cancer, across the UK. Working with the different reimbursement bodies across the UK has certainly been challenging, but we have been collaborative and innovative to find solutions. The knowledge that the appropriate patients have a funded targeted treatment option makes me very proud and is enormously rewarding to me, personally.

What are your passions outside of work?

I really enjoy travel and love visiting new places – city breaks as well as few trips further afield are a great way to forget about the day job and explore new things. Back at home I love rugby and enjoy a few pints of the black stuff watching London Irish and England.

What keeps you awake at night?

There is so much uncertainty in our industry with Brexit looming large, and no-one knows how it will work out and what the implications will be. The main thing that keeps me awake though is the funding and resource crisis in the NHS. In my opinion, the system is coping, but only just, and I think significant change is needed. I fear it is going to get worse and more patients will suffer, before we find a workable solution.