Helping create medical progress
Pharmaceutical manufacturer Roche is the leader in the global oncology market. 18 years ago things looked very different when Dr. Stefan Frings–after completing his residency–left his medical career and switched to the pharmaceutical sector. At that time, he worked on a two-employee team. Today, he is the Medical Director for Roche Germany and has accompanied Roche's rise in oncology while holding a variety of positions within the company. For an interview in the magazine arzt&karriere, he discussed research billions, great successes in oncology, and how the failures of individual research projects are handled.
Dr. Stefan Frings (51) is the Medical Director of Roche Pharma AG Deutschland. He studied at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf and at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He did his residency as an internist at a teaching hospital at the Düsseldorf University Clinic in Krefeld, as well as at the West German Tumor Research Center in Essen. In 1997 he switched to the pharmaceutical industry by joining Roche.
What exactly was your first job at Roche?
In the beginning I looked after two drugs. When I joined Roche, one of them was still in the development stage against breast and colon cancer. My task was to find out, together with my international colleagues, how the active agent could be best used for the benefit of patients and physicians. We then set up a large program for adjuvant therapy for colon cancer. That was very exciting, and I learned a lot. The studies we set up then did ultimately result in global approval from Europe to the USA to Japan. The approval for the drug to be used against breast cancer came early in the USA, and in Europe, initially for use against colon cancer. It was only in a second attempt that it was also approved for use against breast cancer in the EU.
How long did you work on this drug?
For a relatively long time; first for two years in Germany, then half a year in Basel, and then another two-and-a half years in New Jersey. Working internationally appealed to me. There was also a personal gain for us as a family: Both my children grew up bilingually, and we got to know a new cultural environment. And when we told ourselves that we were Europeans and wanted to go back to Germany, that was not a problem for the company either.
Did you then seamlessly continue to work on this drug in Germany?
No, I picked a new job within the company, wanting to help develop a new drug. At that time, we were experimenting with an active agent from the group of monoclonal antibodies, for which we set up a study in the area of HER-2 positive breast cancer. It was a resounding success – after a few earlier studies on HER2-negative breast cancer or HER2-unselected indications had not yielded impressive results. Meanwhile, the drug has been approved worldwide with great success. We at Roche have introduced some very, very successful drugs in the oncology sector.
So the team has grown a bit meanwhile?
I can affirm that without reservations. Roche is the global market leader in oncology. In the group overall, we now have more than 15,000 researchers across all therapy areas.
That sounds very successful, but nevertheless, the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry is not unconditionally good – despite all of the medical innovations and breakthroughs. Why is that so, in your opinion?
Because many people cannot assess and calculate research failures properly. Per year, we invest nine billion euros into research. Publicly-financed research would not even be able to do anything like this. But only one in ten substances tested on humans makes it all the way to approval, and most likely even fewer than that. We just cancelled a large project in oncology at the beginning of this year. We had good data, an interesting hypothesis, great preclinical models, including an approval study, which then–unfortunately–turned out negative. The data made us believe initially that we would be successful. But the study showed: We are going to cancel the project.
How do you actually handle knowing that you have just deep-sixed a double-digit million euros amount?
We have a party! We celebrate the failure.
Did I hear that right?
Yes, that is part of our company culture. There were really good people working on the project, giving their best in order to achieve success together for the benefit of patients. Global teams that have buried a project because ultimately there is no hope for success, will sometimes also be invited by our CEO, Severin Schwan. By doing so, he wants to show us that zero-risk strategies will not result in our making progress together. The company is even grateful for the fact that we made a clear decision and provided a good justification. You don't lose your job at Roche when you shoot down your own project. It would be too bad if you continued forever to tinker with something, ultimately spending even more money. Better a clear decision based on good analyses and data, and then off to the next idea and its implementation.
In the pharmaceutical industry, successful drugs are frequently "reengineered" by a competitor. What is your opinion at Roche about such products?
That is not what we aspire to. We don't do that. We at Roche stand for innovation. What inspires us is the desire to be the first to bring new active agent mechanisms to market. With our products, we want to "rewrite" the medical standard literature and make substantial advances in medical science. We have just succeeded in extending the life of a group of breast cancer patients by an average of 16 months. That is a really great success. This drug will set a new standard in one area of breast cancer therapy.
What is your function today at Roche?
Currently, I am the Medical Director at Roche in Germany for all areas, not just oncology, even though the latter is very strong in Germany, accounting for 80 percent of our sales. Globally, this area makes up 60 percent of our sales. But we also develop products in the areas of arthritis, asthma and multiple sclerosis. I work in a team of about 300 employees. We launch strategies and studies, work on medical management, safety issues, clinical operations, approvals, statistics, quality assurance, and epidemiology. And you can believe me that my working day is never dull, and usually goes by much too fast.
When physicians join Roche nowadays, what would their jobs in your company look like?
I will simply give you an example: At Roche, we have a very interesting trainee program for physicians, which has met with very good acceptance. The participants will go through all of the stations such as Operations, Safety, Medical Information, and Medical Management at our Medical Affairs department here. They are usually physicians in the early stages of their career, specialists, or some also those come directly from medical school. However, for conducting scientific discussions with opinion leaders in the clinics and hospitals, we need seasoned physicians who can understand and treat the diseases. For this area, we are looking for specialists.
What would Stefan Frings as a young resident think if he could meet you in your present function today?
He would, just as I still do sometimes today, be a little surprised that I can now meet those in person about whom I read in awe in the groundbreaking medical standard literature as a young resident. At Roche, we organize international Advisory Boards. This is where we have discussions with the best physicians worldwide about the directions in which research might advance. In my everyday clinical work, I could not have imagined that even in my dreams. As I told you, I joined Roche after my residency because I was looking for a new challenge. My decision was right. On average, I have been doing something new at Roche every two years. And that's exactly what I find fulfilling.