Niche Busters

Roche Pharmaceuticals and its vice president of product strategy Brian Jahns on keeping the future of pharmaceuticals bright by shifting focus away from “blockbuster” drugs

University is a time for students to learn more about their professional career path—some enter higher education with a clear understanding of where they want to go, and others use the time to narrow a focus. What these students commonly discover is what they really want to do may not be exactly what they originally set out to do. Brian Jahns, vice president of product strategy at Roche Pharmaceuticals, narrowed his focus by changing his pharmacology major at Wayne State University to pharmacy.

“I realized I was less interested in lab-based research,” he says. “I was more interested in the clinical application of drugs in everyday care, how they behaved in humans who were dealing with life-threatening situations.”

“Medication needs to be effective beyond the cost that it brings.”

With a doctorate in pharmacy from Wayne State, Jahns then sought to expand his experience with pharmaceuticals, starting with a postdoctoral position on how to care for patients who had been poisoned with chemicals or drugs. A faculty position with the University of Toronto gave him the chance to work in the trauma and neurosurgical intensive care units at St. Michael’s Hospital. Both of those experiences sharpened his desire to contribute to the care of patients.

Roche’s Own Medicine

Administered in combination with chlorambucil chemotherapy for the treatment of people with previously untreated chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It works with the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells.

In 2015, Health Canada approved the drug to be administered in combination with chemotherapy, in order to treat patients with recurrent ovarian cancer. Until recently, only chemotherapy and surgery were available for Canadians diagnosed with the advanced disease.

For the treatment of patients with mild to moderate idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, this was the first medicine approved in the world for the treatment of the progressive lung disease.

Four years of teaching and pharmaceutical research later, Roche came calling. “What really made it for me was the ability to go from participating in small, poorly-funded research studies to interacting with patients all over Canada at Roche,” Jahns recalls. “I went from studies of five or six patients to one hundred and one thousand. We were making new drugs available to hundreds and thousands of patients at a time. It was a huge shift in terms of magnitude of impact.”

That was seventeen years ago. While he says that some of his colleagues from academia and hospitals viewed his migration to a pharmaceutical company as ethically murky, Jahns says it’s never been that way.

“In my job, I’ve always been able to approach our business of healthcare with the best interests of patients at heart,” he says. “We are a complement to what hospitals, government agencies, and doctors are trying to accomplish. We provide them with the tools to more effectively practice their art, which is to relieve suffering. I draw a very straight line between what I do on a daily basis to the care of everyday Canadians.”

Roche manufactures drugs to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and influenza. Its oncology drugs, which represent two-thirds of company sales, can be taken either as a complement to chemotherapy or as an alternative therapy once chemo has ceased to provide beneficial results.

The drugs consist of proteins and antibodies similar to those naturally produced in the human body and bond to the cancer cell—destroying the tumour directly. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, floods the entire body in its attempt to eradicate the cancer, and its side effects are well known.

Jahns says that while Roche’s drugs have a lower side-effect profile than chemotherapy, side effects are not completely benign, so the company continually tests its drugs.

Since the Canadian healthcare system is publicly funded, drug development in the country is held to a high standard. The government will not pay for a new drug without sufficient evidence that it is safe and that it also represents an improvement over traditional therapies.

“You need to demonstrate a lot of effectiveness for the price of the medication,” Jahns says. “It needs to be way more than safe and effective; medication needs to be effective beyond the cost that it brings.”

The challenge to prove efficacy and value has increased as Roche looks to replicate its success in oncology medicines and treat orphan diseases (defined as a condition that affects less than two hundred thousand people) and neurological conditions.

Jahns notes that while Roche’s work is important, it can be taxing, as well. “Treating rare diseases is a feel-good area and one in which precision medicine can work really well, but there are a number of challenges,” he says. “If the disease is rare, there are not big networks of physicians to treat it. So it may be hard oftentimes just doing the studies.”

Notwithstanding the challenges, Jahns says that Roche will continue to push the envelope in pharmaceuticals, always searching for the next important drug.

“We’re more about the niche buster than the blockbuster,” he explains. “We invest the largest amount of money in research of any pharmaceutical company. We do that because that’s what drives innovation in this space. We have no desire to make copies of somebody else’s great idea. We want to come up with the next best pharmaceutical idea. Our model is looking at the next unmet medical need, the next disease that needs to be cured, and bringing something innovative to patients. If a new drug has enough value therapeutically, we will make it successful based on the benefit it brings.”