The girl who wanted to cure cancer

By Megan Brodie 11 months ago | In Companies, People
  • 11 months ago

22 March 2023

Several decades ago, a girl who grew up in Tunisia had a dream to cure cancer – a dream that led her to pursue a career in science, which transformed into a focus on winning the Nobel Prize by finding the cause of cancer and evolved into a career where she changed thousands of lives through clinical trials.

Melika Davis, Senior Vice President of Global Clinical Operations for BeiGene, has not lost hope that a cure for cancer exists and believes if the world truly collaborated in its efforts to find that cure, it would be found – the Covid pandemic a living example of how a problem can be solved by everyone working together.

“I really like the fact that industry, academia, regulators, and health authorities all came together to find a solution in Covid,” she tells MedNews when we sat down in Sydney last week for BeiGene’s 2023 APAC conference. “This is what we should be doing for any disease and if we could make that happen, that would be great.”

Davis’ desire to cure cancer traces back to her childhood in Africa and a love of science that led her to France where she studied physiology and kicked off her career as a scientist. She says in the 1980s and 90s, “we didn’t know how cancer worked – it was a big black hole”.

Her interest saw her move to the US where she gained a Master’s in microbiology and worked to understand the cancer pathway.

“My dream was to get the Nobel prize – I wanted to discover how cells became cancerous, because I believed that if we discovered this, we would uncover the key to ageing.”

But when her research career reached a point where she needed a PhD, Davis took a detour into clinical research where she rose quickly through the ranks, initially working in hepatitis C and respiratory diseases before joining Novartis in 2004, just as the company was building an oncology franchise.

“It was like joining a growing biotech,” she says. “I managed the US monitoring organisation and implemented a model that was so successful, they asked me to do the same thing globally. I later moved into the vaccines division and did the same thing there, which was an amazing experience and very different to oncology.”

When Novartis sold its vaccines division to GSK, Davis was seconded to transition her team and build the new division in GSK before returning to Novartis as its Head of Development, Quality and Assurance.

“I really wanted to test my leadership and push my leadership skills in different ways in an area where I was not the subject matter expert,” she says. “After three years, I wanted to get back into clinical operations and knew I didn’t want to go back into big pharma. I wanted to relive the experience I had with Novartis Oncology – that biotech feeling of working together to bring new medicines to patients.

“I wanted a company that wasn’t a start-up and had a good portfolio in place and was going to grow, because growing an organisation is what I do best. I found that with BeiGene, but what really struck me was the belief of the senior leadership that cancer has no borders, and neither do we. That spoke to me and was the exact motive I was looking for.”

Davis joined BeiGene in 2019, just before Covid hit and while managing the same challenges as others in having to keep her global team safe, keeping trials moving was another challenge and required a pivot to cater for the new environment of pandemic lockdowns.

The flexibility and initiatives implemented during that time will be the future, says Davis, saying the taking of trials to patients rather than patients to trials is the only way forward.

“Direct to patient is not easy but we’ve proven we can do it. Covid has taught us that we can conduct clinical trials remotely, and we can do it a lot faster but the processes we have in place are very traditional, and we have to change those. We need to move into a digitalised space, and we need to move quickly.

“This is the time to do it. We have a lot of technology and AI, so let’s take advantage. We have a window of opportunity now to make this happen and while we have to make sure the right privacy protections are in place, we will get there.”

While clinical trials is a challenging game where new treatments must be proven both safe and effective to secure global regulatory approval, Davis says the original strategy of understanding how a disease works through collaboration with researchers and institutions is the key to success.

“There will always be bumps in the road but you also need to identify risks early on,” she said.¬†“We have really good researchers in Australia and that to me is really important – that’s where it all starts.

“From there on, it is ensuring we understand the patient journey, understand how doctors see patients, and what we can do to make a protocol that is feasible and as easy to implement as possible. Couple that with technology, very strong talent that understands the clinical trial process, and really good planning.”

Davis said companies developing a therapy need to focus on the disease and understanding how they can “beat cancer”.

“With all the information we have now, I don’t know that we are mining the data properly,” she said. “If we all worked together, we could find a cure a lot faster. At the moment, BeiGene is doing one thing, Pfizer another and MSD another. This is how the market is set up but if we came together as global citizens like we did in Covid, we could achieve much more.”

Davis says the global system of medicines development is built around competition, but her wish now is for no competition, saying, “We should all come together to fight the disease, not to compete with each other to fight the disease”.

Davis’ dream of curing cancer has clearly not dissipated. When asked if she is still on the path to find a cure, she replies, “I’m on the right path in a different way”.

“Making an impact on patients every day as they come into our clinical trials is, to me, huge. That’s what I want to do – bring our drugs to market faster and we always need to ask ourselves, what do we need to do to make that better? How do we need to change? What are the processes that we should be changing?

“Maybe I’m getting a little bit more impatient than I was before – I feel that time is running out and we need to go faster. Maybe that’s the frustration for so many doctors and patients. We need to find these medicines a little bit faster, approve them faster, get them on the market faster.”

©MedNews 2023

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