An interview with Mene Pangalos on his knighthood, the new AstraZeneca HQ and changing mindsets
Dr Mene Pangalos couldn’t quite believe his eyes when he opened the letter telling him he was to be knighted.
“I was at home in the utility room at home with my wife opening the mail in my pyjamas,” he tells the Cambridge Independent. “I called her in and said ‘I’m not sure I’m reading this correctly’. I was hugely surprised and honoured - all the emotions go through you.
“Then we both burst in to tears. It was hugely exciting.”
Dr Pangalos is executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca.
Since joining the company a decade ago, he has transformed its culture, dramatically raising research and development productivity to help more medicines reach patients.
In particular, he has been the driving force behind an almost five-fold increase in the number of pipeline molecules advancing from pre-clinical investigation to completion of phase III clinical trials.
He has also pioneered an open innovation approach to science, encouraging collaboration between industry and academia, working on programmes that involve 200 academic institutions.
It is this mindset that led to AstraZeneca building its new global headquarters and R&D centre on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
“Getting an award like this is a reflection of all the amazing people I’ve been lucky to work with in AstraZeneca as well as collaborate with outside of AstraZeneca,” says Dr Pangalos.
“Part of that is being open and collaborative and porous. It’s the reason why we’ve come to Cambridge from the north-west. It’s the culture we’ve been building now for many years.
“It’s all about bringing the best of our science together with the very best of scientists outside the company and by doing that creating more than the sum of its parts.
“The best evidence that this works is looking at the productivity we’ve had over the years, the new medicines that have launched and the impact we’re having on patients’ lives with those medicines.”
He acknowledged that embedding this open approach - a radical departure from the protective, insular mindsets pharma companies once adopted - was challenging and took time.
“I’m coming up for my tenth anniversary at AstraZeneca. I can’t believe where the time has gone!” he says.
“The company was very inwardly focused. A long time ago, we were used to personal bests versus world records. Now we like to set world records working with our collaborators and partners.
“It also required evidence from us. By being open and porous, by sharing our data, by giving back as much as we take, it then makes it easier for the academics to open up and choose to work with you.
“The process has taken many years, and it’s culminated in us moving to Cambridge, being on the Biomedical Campus, next to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the CRUK Cambridge Institute, Addenbrooke’s and the Royal Papworth.
“It’s a phenomenal place for us to be. With that culture we have, it makes it a great place to be to collaborate.”
A year ago, AstraZeneca announced a new partnership with the CRUK Cambridge Institute on a Functional Genomics Centre, which is beginning to identify its first targets.
“We also announced a big genomics initiative last year where we are sequencing 500,000 UK genomes from the BioBank. That is starting to generate data.
“All the investments that we and others are making in this space are going to really help us start to unravel some of these very complex diseases and identify new pathways and targets that will hopefully yield tomorrow’s therapies. The progress made just this year is very exciting,” says Dr Pangalos.
Progress should only be accelerated when AstraZeneca moves into its stunning £500million-plus new building.
“I’m hoping we’re going to start moving our first people in by the end of next year, which I’m hugely excited about. Apart from the fact that we want to be on the Addenbrooke’s campus, next to our collaborators and future partners, right now we are scattered across eight or nine sites in the Cambridge area, which is great for getting us embedded but it’s very difficult to create a sense of community among our people,” says Dr Pangalos.
“The thought of getting our people into a single building, starting next year, is tremendously exciting for me and I’m hoping to be one of the first people in without a hard hat.
“We hope to have 200 or 300 people in by the end of next year, which would be great.”
It will represent another significant moment in a stellar career.
Following study at Imperial College, London, and a PhD at neuropharmacology from University College London, he completed post-doctoral training at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and has held positions at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Janssen Pharmaceutica, SmithKline Beecham and GlaxoSmithKline in Harlow. From 2003-8, he oversaw the translation of 20 novel drug candidates into clinical development at US-based Wyeth. He then spent two years as a senior vice-president at Pfizer before joining AstraZeneca.
“I’ve had a wonderful career so far, and I’ve worked with some exceptional people. I’ve had the support of my wife and children. My wife, Kelly, had to give up her career as a neuroscientist because I kept on moving us from pillar to post and it became difficult. I wouldn’t have done any of this without her support, so this is as much for her as it is for me,” he says.
Born in Ealing, London, to a family of Greek diaspora, there were few clues to his future career from his family background.
“My dad was a captain. My mother was a stay-at-home wife. There are no scientists in the family. I would have been a marine engineer if I’d followed the family traditions,” he says.
“Both were hugely supportive and drove me… probably a bit too much! My mum would have loved me to have become a medical doctor.
“But I’ve always been interested in science. I had a really good biology teacher at school - Mr Papman. He just really galvanised me in terms of finding biology interesting.
“I wasn’t particularly good at school I have to say. I flourished more at university because I preferred working more independently than having to learn everything by rote, as they used to teach us at school. I was always interested in the workings of the brain, which is why I ended up as a neuroscientist.
“I’ve been lucky and I took the opportunities when they came. I wasn’t afraid to take a few risks - leaving home, and going to different countries and exploring different opportunities.”
A fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society of Biology and Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, he sits on the Medical Research Council, co-chairs the Life Sciences Council Expert Group on Innovation, Clinical Research and Data, and is a member of the UK Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Implementation Board.
“We are working very hard with the government to make sure the UK is viewed as one of the best places in the world to do life sciences. I think this government is going to be absolutely committed to that,” he says.
“John Bell is a fantastic leader of the strategy and has been very inspirational, galvanising and helping the government to understand the impact our sector has on the economy and of course the importance of the Cambridge-Oxford-London triangle, in terms of the heavy preponderance of biotechs and life science companies, which are going to help drive the next decade of innovation from this company. It is going to be happening all over the UK but I think this local cluster can compete with Boston and California and is one of the best in the world.”
Dr Pangalos also sits on the boards of The Francis Crick Institute, the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge and Dizal Pharma, and is a member of the Royal Society’s science, industry and translation committee.
He has held visiting professorships at King’s College London and the University of Pennsylvania and is the holder of honorary degrees from Glasgow University and Imperial College London. In 2019, he received the Greek Prix Galien Scientific Researcher Award.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive officer at AstraZeneca, said: “Mene’s knighthood is fitting recognition of his outstanding talent and commitment to UK science and drug discovery which is helping bring innovative new medicines to patients around the world.
“He has driven the transformation of research and development at AstraZeneca, with a remarkable improvement in productivity in recent years, and he is now accelerating efforts in the digital transformation of R&D.”