By Rich Soll, Senior Vice President, Research Service Division, WuXi AppTec (@richsollwx)
In the life sciences, disruptive innovation is no longer the exception; it’s the rule. One global R&D executive known for successfully driving innovation is Elaine Sullivan.
Sullivan – who has 25 years of experience in the pharma industry – has led R&D teams at Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca, and worked internationally in the US and the UK, developing new molecules in therapy areas such as virology, cancer, ophthalmology, respiratory and inflammation.
Today, she is leading the charge behind Carrick Therapeutics, a start-up whose ambitious plans include becoming Europe’s premier oncology player. Carrick is developing an innovative portfolio of first-in-class treatments that are advanced through understanding the mechanisms that cause cancer and resistance, tailored to an individual patient’s tumor. By linking a network of clinicians and scientists in internationally leading research institutes and hospitals, Carrick plans to use its multi-asset portfolio to drive the development of these ground-breaking cancer therapies from laboratory to clinic.
Carrick has managed to assemble world-class cancer researchers and drug development experts, and has attracted some of the most renowned providers of early stage capital. In October 2016, the company received $95 million in funding, which was led by ARCH Venture Partners and Woodford Investment Management.
I recently spoke with Sullivan, who gave a sneak peek behind Carrick’s new approach to cancer therapies, the company’s strategy in building Europe’s leading oncology company, as well as what drives her passion for science.
Rich Soll: You’ve had such a tremendous rise in the industry. Can you share with us your personal journey?
Elaine Sullivan: I’ve always had a huge passion for science. I was incredibly fortunate to do my Ph.D. with the late Professor Ken Murray, who was one of the founders of Biogen. During that time, he really instilled in me and the group a great belief that everything is possible, and he was one of the most inspirational people I’ve met. To him, life was always about inspiration, biotech, great science, and believing anything’s possible. He was a great mentor and stimulus from the beginning of my career.
Rich Soll: How did your career develop from AstraZeneca and then ultimately lead to Lilly?
Elaine Sullivan: Throughout my career at AstraZeneca, I was really fortunate to be supported in creating and developing functions which were about transformational change in R&D. As vice president, Science & Technology at AstraZeneca, my priority was identifying and integrating novel drug-hunting approaches to successfully reduce compound attrition in the clinic and significantly decrease the time to deliver new molecules.
Then, as vice president, R&D New Opportunities, I established the first virtual therapy area in AstraZeneca to pinpoint new disease areas and future health care trends, create new therapeutic applications for multiple molecular entities, and advance them into the clinic. Getting into the clinic – that’s always the priority.
At Eli Lilly, where I was vice president of Global External Research and Development, the global workforce I led was focused on delivering access to external innovation. We did this, firstly, by identifying, evaluating, and acquiring therapeutic molecules and technologies, and secondly, by creating and managing Lilly’s external R&D portfolio via venture, equity, and strategic partnerships.
Rich Soll: So now we get to Carrick. Carrick is very different in the sense that it’s an outsourced model with key strategic partners; it almost breaks the mold compared to what you’ve been used to, where internal resources were either available or accessible to carry out execution on the projects you were working on. How is Carrick’s model unique?
Elaine Sullivan: One of the cornerstones of Carrick was to create a leading oncology company and to build a company with a strong foundation that we could scale.
We have an excellent, experienced R&D team with an outstanding track record in developing innovative medicines via an outsourced model, collaborating with a network of world class scientists and clinicians in top institutions such as Cambridge University, Imperial College London, Oxford University, and the Christie Hospital in Manchester. Carrick Therapeutics also has a strong association with Cancer Research UK, the world’s leading cancer charity.
In addition, Carrick Therapeutics has assembled a team of internationally recognized clinicians and scientists for the company’s scientific advisory board, which is chaired by Sir John Bell (Regius Professor of Medicine, University of Oxford).
To enable a rapid execution and enhanced selection of compounds across the R&D value chain, we have a unique combination of platform technologies and strategic alliances. That means we can select the best compounds to achieve clinical proof of concept faster and at lower cost.
By pulling our R&D team together, plus the company research engine, we’ve really moved incredibly fast, and we’ve moved quickly because instead of building from scratch the infrastructure and the labs, we’ve almost immediately created a great network of people that have the expertise and facilities at hand. The other advantage we’ve had is that we’ve had enormous support from the scientific community both in Europe and in the US, which has been exceptional.
Carrick is Irish for stone, which represents our vision to create a strong foundation on which to build a successful company.
Rich Soll: What’s interesting to me is you have a terrific investor team and scientific staff. How do you differentiate yourself from other companies in the oncology space?
Elaine Sullivan: For me, the differentiation will always be the science and the compounds that we are progressing. Our initial projects are in aggressive forms of cancer, and adaptive resistance. The projects will have utility in breast, colon, and ovarian cancer, where there is a significant clinical need – for example, the five-year rates of survival are only 50%. We’re passionate about driving change, and with respect to the molecules, the novel mechanisms, our collaborators, and talent we have around us, we feel really confident that we can and will be unique.
Rich Soll: What are your near-term milestones?
Elaine Sullivan: We are getting ready to go into the clinic with a very exciting molecule, and our near-term milestone is to demonstrate a suitable pharmacokinetic and tolerability profile, and then move quickly into an efficacy study to demonstrate a positive effect on patients. We’re also looking for two other clinical assets to accelerate our portfolio build.
Rich Soll: What will Carrick look like three years from now?
Elaine Sullivan: Carrick, in three years’ time, will have compounds that will have read out in the clinic, and we will have continued to move other great projects into the clinic – that’s our clear strategy.
Rich Soll: How important is having the right strategic partners and academic collaborations in fighting these aggressive cancers?
Elaine Sullivan: It’s extremely important because this encourages synergy between us and our collaborators – academic and industry partners – to help us identify those novel signals, and give us that insight into different cancer types and their biological mechanisms. So it’s really important to make sure that the academic partners and Carrick are really linked together, so that when you see something novel you grasp it and incorporate those findings into your R&D programs. That’s what I love; it is hugely exciting.
Rich Soll: We describe cancers historically through several different characteristics, and now we have about 10 characteristics. Do you expect more fundamental additions to this through your own research?
Elaine Sullivan: Yes, I do. We’re working very much on adaptive resistance, and you see that occurring frequently in cancer. It’s about getting in before that resistance kicks in with another molecule, another mechanism. We want to help people live well and long despite their cancer condition.
Rich Soll: Do you see the cancers you’re working on as giving patients longer time or do you see some fundamental breakthroughs in these aggressive cancers that may ultimately lead to cures?
Elaine Sullivan: Of course the ultimate aim is to cure the most advanced forms of aggressive cancer, which is taken as being disease-free after five years. This is sometimes seen for some patients treated with agents designed to target specific molecular changes as we begin to understand the drivers of cancer – for example, Glivec in CML. However, what we’re also trying to do is effect transformational change in cancer care for patients, helping people live well and longer with cancer.
Rich Soll: Are there any personal motivations behind your passionate work with aggressive cancer therapies?
Elaine Sullivan: My father had very aggressive stomach cancer and was given a very poor life expectancy. He was offered a new therapy which included a constant infusion of Fluorouracil (5FU) using a portable pump. He was very brave and was determined to try any treatment that would help him.
His courage and determination to beat the disease was striking, as well as his great humor, which was inspirational. He was intrigued by the therapy, and as an electrical engineer he also worked with the clinical unit to offer suggestions on how to improve the design of the pump. He lived another three years after his diagnosis. My three children were born during this time and he got know them, which simply wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had that treatment. It has hugely affected me, my children, and my whole family.
Rich Soll: What keeps you up at night when you think about Carrick and what you need to accomplish?
Elaine Sullivan: It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity. Carrick is the right company at the right time. What keeps me up at night is thinking about how I can help make sure that the great team and collaborators we have all work together successfully to obtain maximum benefit from our portfolio for cancer patients.
Rich Soll: Do you having any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
Elaine Sullivan: I would just stress that Carrick’s mission is creating Europe’s leading oncology company, and we believe that we have the strong foundation and portfolio that will enable us to achieve our goal. The value of our company is built on our vision and drive to successfully use our portfolio to develop new market-leading treatments, creating transformational change for cancer patients.