TrailblAZers in Oncology:
Treating cancer is personal

Written by:

Liz Pease

Global Product Leader, Immuno-Oncology Genitourinary and Women's Cancer, Oncology Business Unit, AstraZeneca

Science needs inquisitive, diverse thinkers to drive breakthroughs.

I was the kind of kid that was always asking “why?” and “what if?” I wanted to understand why things are the way they are. In my mind, that made science the most obvious and natural place for me to be. I had fantastic science teachers at school; Friday afternoons were A-level chemistry and they made it great fun and fed my enthusiasm to explore.

As a young female from a family who had never been to university, a degree and PhD in chemistry was a long way from anything I had imagined as a child, but I just followed what I enjoyed. I was lucky to have a supportive supervisor who encouraged me to follow my thinking. Just before I left for further study with my post-doctoral degree in the US, he took me out for lunch and told me, “You're amazing to have in the group but I could only ever have one of you.” I’m not sure what he meant by it, but I decided to take it as a compliment. And that’s the thing about science – great science demands unique and diverse perspectives and people who can’t help but venture “outside the box.”

I was privileged to join AstraZeneca, surrounded by smart people to learn from and embark on a career of learning how to get the body to course correct. This is a multifactorial problem requiring a strong team of experts.  I often think of the work we do at AstraZeneca as one big puzzle. Each piece that makes up that puzzle has its own distinctive shape. Like a puzzle, each one of us at AstraZeneca has a place where our talents and perspectives fit in and, without which, there would be a gaping hole.

Working in oncology drug development is like putting together a puzzle – the pieces are all a little different and have a specific way of fitting with one another because it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

The future is personalised

When I initially joined the Oncology Business Unit from the Research and Development side of the business, lots of people asked me why I made the change, and my answer was simple: “I’ve done extensive work in the early development of drugs, but I’ve never worked on a medicine available to patients.”

To me, a medicine is something that transforms outcomes for patients across the world. In my current role as Global Product Leader, I get to focus on ensuring drugs turn into medicines and significantly improve patient outcomes globally. A key area as we move forward in our fight against cancer will be identifying the patients that truly benefit; each patient is unique, so we need to develop personalised medicines.

At AstraZeneca, we are constantly learning more about the heterogeneity of cancer and discovering ways to target cancer from multiple angles. We’re examining targeting cancer vulnerabilities in the DNA damage response and targeting epigenetic changes and activating the body’s immune system to overcome immune suppression, activating existing T-cells and replacing the immune system.

Our aim is to transform cancer from an acute disease to a chronic disease on the journey to ultimately cure cancer. While we've made progress with certain subtypes, there are still so many others, but we're hopeful that we can make a broader impact. Cancer is a highly individualised disease and each patient's experience with cancer is unique, influenced by their personality, circumstances and the specific characteristics of their disease. It's therefore important we put patients at the heart of what we do and tailor treatments accordingly in order to provide the best possible care.

One approach that will be critical to drive better outcomes will be to understand how we combine drugs to optimally address the heterogeneity of cancer. We are continually exploring how best to combine our medicines that cover a wide range of mode of actions to maximise the benefit they can bring to patients.

Every person with cancer should have the chance to benefit from novel therapies and the latest scientific innovations. In order to do that, we need to continue to drive the understanding of cancer to enable us to outsmart it. That way we can work out how to beat each person's specific cancer type. Surviving is not enough anymore. People don’t want to just survive – they want to thrive.

Liz’s story is part of our ongoing series: TrailblAZers in Oncology, which spotlights colleagues on the AstraZeneca Oncology team who are making an impact, both personally and professionally.