AO winner ‘proud to be pharma’

By Megan Brodie 2 years ago | In People
  • 2 years ago
Mark Sullivan AO says he only left big pharma because he wanted to stay in Australia.

7 February 2022

Named as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the Australia Day Honours list less than two weeks ago for ‘distinguished service to medical research, business, and education’, Mark Sullivan says the award is “a lovely honour” but vows it won’t change his life.

The former GSK and Gilead clinical researcher was previously Victoria’s Australian of the Year in 2019, the two prestigious awards recognition for his years of work in developing medicines to meet high unmet needs in low and middle-income countries.

While Sullivan’s work is both extraordinary and virtuous, he sees himself as being no different to countless unsung heroes who work in pharmaceutical companies and in medicines regulation, all driven by a mutual desire to bring medicines through for patients.

“The AO means an awful lot because it has come from some people that I work with who put my name forward, which is just such a really flattering, lovely thing,” he says.

“People like me just are not used to being thrust in front of media. We just put our heads down and nerdily get on with our work, so it’s a big adjustment but it is a really lovely thing when somebody else recognises what you’re doing and wants to acknowledge that… but it doesn’t change my life.”

A working holiday tackling HIV

Officer of the Order of Australia medal

Sullivan’s pharmaceutical career kicked off in the late 1980s when he took a job as a clinical researcher working on the HIV antiviral pill 3TC (lamivudine) with GSK while on a working holiday in the UK. Finding the mix of travel, project management and science perfect both personally and professionally, his ‘holiday’ stretched out to 10 years before he moved to the US with pharma antiviral specialist Gilead.

But after years away, Sullivan was homesick and a job offer from the late David Cooper, inaugural director of the Kirby Institute and world-renowned immunology expert at the newly formed HIV Vaccine Consortium at NSW University provided Sullivan with the ticket he needed to come home.

That was 2003 and in transitioning from industry to academia, Sullivan soon identified several pieces of intellectual property he felt would benefit from a more commercial, pharma approach, leading to him founding Medicines Development for Global Health (MDGH) in 2005.

“I could have achieved pretty much all of my personal goals within industry,” he says. “If I was a Brit or an American, I would still be working for GSK or Gilead. The reasons I stepped out and set up my own organisation were largely selfish.

“I’m a drug developer. I know how to get global regulatory programs together and get drug approvals, but that’s not a skill set that Pfizer or GSK particularly need in Australia. I also need purpose – I have to work on meaningful things. I had that opportunity at GSK and Gilead and I created that opportunity for myself with Medicines Development. It was more about purpose and pharmaceutical development.

“I have a passion for the science, for the processes, for the skills in herding kittens. Those are the things that I really enjoy.”

Why a not-for-profit?

Sullivan says the decision to establish a not-for-profit was again practical rather than moral as NFP status meant “people could not judge me for having an ulterior motive” – and it made little difference financially given its focus was never going to attract big dollars.

“It took away any of those conversations about why you are in it and what’s in it for you,” he says. “I get my salary and that’s it. I do this because I care and I feel my skill set can change an awful lot of people’s lives but the purpose is the same in Gilead, in GSK, and in Medicines Development – it’s been identical all the way through.

“People really need to be very proud of what they do and anytime I hear the dark side, I will pull people up and make sure they understand we are not big tobacco. We make medicines to improve people’s lives.”

Sullivan says pharma’s reputation concerns him and he often finds himself defending it.

“The highest standard of research is done within the industry, not outside. I never felt the need to break from that in order to achieve what I wanted to achieve, which is to improve people’s lives.”

Collaborating with Big Pharma

MDGH’s jewel in its crown is antiparasitic moxidectin, approved by the FDA in 2018 as the first treatment for river blindness in 20 years. Sullivan credits people at Wyeth, Pfizer, and the WHO for working on it over the 19 years it was in development as “we’ve now got a drug that is remarkable and has an amazing opportunity to have an impact”.

MDGH also has a potential candidate for leprosy and tuberculosis after securing the rights from Amgen in 2020, Amgen since funding one clinical trial while providing the drug free for another.

MDGH is also growing, employing 22 people in Australia – five onboarded in the past year – while Sullivan expects to hire up to five more by the end of the year and MDGH is establishing a presence in Europe to complement its US and UK offices.

Sullivan’s vision is for it to be the world’s leading not-for-profit biopharma with both products in the market and the clinic, while also ensuring the next generation of Aussie ‘drug developers’ like himself don’t have to go overseas to progress their careers.

A proud Australian and pharma man, it is clear why Sullivan was an outstanding choice both for an AO and as Victorian of the Year, although he continues to humbly dismiss the honours as almost incidental.

“I would be one of the nameless, faceless people working in a head office overseas but I am, to the core, an industry person and that’s not going to change,” he says. “Pharmaceutical medicine is the happy place where I want to work because it’s where the big impact is.”

He points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a great example of the work done by the medicines industry, and the importance of having great national regulators such as the TGA.

“Our industry deserves a round of applause. When you walk down the street, others should take their hats off to the people who have worked so hard on these medicines, and to our regulators who protect us from crap science and crap information and crap drugs. We are just are so lucky here,” he says.

“It’s important that people feel proud of what they’re doing, and that’s not just having your colleagues look at you and nod as you walk down the corridor. The whole world is better for what we do and people should be really proud of that.”

©MedNews 2022

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