Q&A with Sir Mene Pangalos

In the 2020 New Year Honours List, AstraZeneca’s EVP BioPharmaceuticals R&D, Mene Pangalos was awarded a knighthood by Her Majesty The Queen, for his services to UK science. We caught up with Mene soon after the news broke to find out what this means to him.

Congratulations Sir Mene! You must be very pleased to receive this honour – what does it mean to you?

It is an incredible honour not just for me but for my family and all the fantastic people I have worked with throughout my career.

The UK has one of the strongest and most productive healthcare and life sciences industries in the world, having three of the top ten universities globally and nearly a fifth of the world’s most-cited publications come from UK life scientists. I am proud to have started my scientific career in the UK and to have played a small part in fostering a thriving life sciences eco-system. We are collaborating with some of the brightest minds on pioneering research and we have colleagues from around 70 countries working with us here. Our investment in a new R&D Centre in Cambridge, builds on a 25-year heritage in the city. The power of our physical proximity to neighbours in academia, healthcare and industry creates an exciting environment where ideas and talent can be shared to drive truly ground-breaking innovation.

Hear more about Mene’s curiosity for scientific innovation and what has driven him to succeed:

What have been your career highlights?

In our industry, we try to harness the power of science to change the world for the better. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing great science turned into medicines that can help transform a patient’s life – this is all the more rewarding when we understand how often we fail in our scientific endeavours and understand the level of resilience and sheer determination required by our scientists and physicians to discover and develop a novel medicine. 

Take olaparib, the first PARP inhibitor for breast and ovarian cancer. This was a molecule where we understood the mechanism of action, we knew how it was working and why. In 2011 as we started to get more data, it was decided to terminate the molecule but, our research and early development teams refused to give up as we fundamentally believed in the science. By enabling our teams to work on the molecule subsequent clinical data resulted in the approval of olaparib in the EU and US as the first PARP inhibitor to treat BRCA positive ovarian cancer in 2014. This is testament to the perseverance, diligence and the passion of our scientists to follow the science and do the sometimes hard – but right – thing.

Osimertinib, our EGFRm inhibitor for non-small cell lung cancer is another example where we have followed the science. THIS became one of the fastest medicines ever approved in our industry going from first-time in man to launch in just over 2.5 years. This was because we understood the biology and our chemists made a great molecule, we understood the patient population and we were set up to move the programme with speed and precision.

I am so proud of how we have transformed AstraZeneca over the past eight years, and this is because of the incredible people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.

Since 2012, we have increased AstraZeneca’s R&D success rates almost 5-fold and launched more medicines than ever before across a variety of diseases such as cancer, asthma, COPD, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and renal disease helping to treat millions of patients.

The pace of scientific and pipeline change has been remarkable considering the long cycle times in our industry and even more so, considering most in the external scientific and investor community thought the company would never return to growth. The company has gone from being perceived as having one of the weakest R&D groups in the industry to now being viewed as one of the strongest. I am incredibly proud and privileged to have played a small part in the transformation of our pipeline and our culture.

I am so lucky to have one of the best jobs in the world and a job that l absolutely love. I’m also so privileged to be able to work with so many talented colleagues and collaborators.

What were your first reactions when you opened the letter?

I was totally shocked and surprised. My wife was next to me when I opened the letter and we were both absolutely shocked and quite emotional. I had to read it a few times to check it wasn’t a mistake. My daughters were thrilled too but I think primarily because they think they might get to visit a palace and meet The Queen.

I was born in the UK but have a Greek heritage, so family is really important to me. Being able to share the moment with those I am closest to is one I will never forget. It is an incredible honour and one I accepted with a huge amount of pride. No one expects to get a Knighthood, certainly not for doing a job they love and feel privileged to do, so it is incredibly humbling and I am absolutely delighted.

How did you celebrate?

I celebrated with my wife, my daughters with some champagne and a nice meal. You are not allowed to tell anyone until it is formally announced so I am very much looking forward to celebrating with the teams at AstraZeneca and my scientific colleagues across the UK in the New Year.