Published April 22, 2013
Holding the keys to the future of health care and medicine is not something many children dream of doing.
But Bahija Jallal, executive vice president of AstraZeneca’s (AZN) biologics arm, MedImmune, knew from a very young age that was the career she was destined for.
“It was at nine years old that my father died from a medical error,” she said. “From there I really started asking ‘Why.’ And my passion for asking why, and how can I learn more about science, and learn more about why that happened. (Those questions) turned into determination to go all the way and to try to understand. That turned into the passion for helping others.”
Jallal said one of the things that drives her each and every day is the constant desire and hunger to learn.
“You really have to be passionate about science to get into this field because it is tough. It’s one where a lot of things fail before one succeeds,” she said. “The fact that I can still do what I’m very passionate about and that I have the privilege to do it, is how I define success.”
Jallal’s climb to the top of one of the biggest names in health care has been a winding one. She grew up in Morocco, went on to receive a masters degree in biology and a doctorate in physiology after studying in France, conducted post-doctoral research in Germany, and moved back to the U.S. where she worked in California for a number of years before settling on the East Coast at AstraZeneca.
It’s that diversity in her background that gives her a unique perspective on the world of medicine and research, she said.
“Having come from such a different background and living everywhere, I think it’s an asset because it allows me to really understand different situations, different people we’re working with,” she said. “With MedImmune being a global company, it’s also very important to understand the culture and provide the culture where innovation can happen.”
Jallal’s Push for Targeted Medicines
After joining MedImmune, Jallal worked to push the company further into the translational science realm, which meant working to move information more quickly to improve patient care and drug development.
She said there are many different ways that transition has impacted MedImmune’s drug development, which accounts for almost 50% of AstraZeneca’s drug pipeline. One of the first is through embedding a different kind of philosophy to understand drugs better in the early stages of clinical development and tailor it to the right patients.
“When we do clinical trials, they’re long and costly. The way it used to be is you would not know (how a drug would work) so you test everyone. But you would wait to find out at the end of phase three of the trial if the drug worked, and then you find out it’s only in 25% of patients. Now, we find out who those 25% are and test only those people so we can bring the diagnostic or drug to the market and only to the patients we know it will work for. It’s not always easy because you need the science to do it, but now we have the tools do to so,” she said.
Jallal said MedImmune is now not only using translational science methods to develop diagnostics and drugs for various kinds of cancer, but now for respiratory diseases as well.
Though Jallal’s work to bring a new method of bringing drugs to the marketplace has worked well for the company, in the beginning, working to show people the benefits wasn’t always easy. At the start, she was met with resistance and doubt. But thanks to her perseverance, she has been able to help the company help patients more quickly and effectively.
“The most important thing is to always believe in yourself and to believe in what you’re doing and follow your heart,” she said. “I think that has always been a mantra for me, especially for how to go about life in general and definitely in the world of science and pharmaceuticals as well.”