Women in Science: UCB’s Iris Loew-Friedrich: ‘patients are what get me out of bed every morning’

By Isabel Cameron

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Ucb Clinical trial Clinical research Research and development

Iris Loew-Friedrich is the executive vice president and chief medical officer at global biopharma company UCB.

Iris has held several positions within research and development in different companies, always with a focus on global drug development. Prior to joining UCB, she was the global head of research and development at Schwarz Pharma, acquired by UCB in 2006.

Iris is a physician, board-certified in internal medicine, with a medical license from the University of Frankfurt where she also holds a visiting professorship at the Medical School. We discussed her predictions for the future of clinical trials, impressive career trajectory and her drive to help patients living with acute diseases.

OSP: Could you give me an overview of the work you do at UCB and what the company focuses on?

As chief medical officer for UCB, a member of the executive committee, and head of development solutions, I am responsible for providing strategic global leadership in clinical development, medical affairs, regulatory affairs, quality assurance, statistical innovation, real-world evidence, and patient safety.

At UCB we are committed to transforming the lives of people with severe diseases, enabling them to live the best life possible, free from the challenges of disease. That commitment comes to life in our research and development activities across neurology, immunology, and other areas where our expertise, innovation and ambition align with unmet needs.

My mission is to lead UCB's Development Solutions. I work to ensure the high-quality, innovative, and cost-effective development of therapies that deliver proven and sustainable value for the patients we serve.

OSP: What are your predictions for the future of clinical trials?

Technological advancements and partnering with patients will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the future of clinical trials, with the emergence of virtualized trials leading the way. This innovative approach could revolutionize the field by addressing operational clinical challenges and minimizing the need for large-scale patient enrolment. By leveraging advanced analytics and artificial intelligence tools and consolidating data assets within a unified digital library, researchers can merge current patient data with historical information from previous trials. This integration could enable more comprehensive and robust testing, even with a limited cohort of participants.

Virtualized trials offer many advantages, such as increased accessibility for patients, reduced geographical barriers, and enhanced convenience. We are already leveraging remote-monitoring, wearable devices, and telemedicine, so researchers can gather real-time data and closely monitor participants' progress throughout the trial. This approach not only improves efficiency but can also enhance patient engagement and retention and will likely continue to grow as technology advances.

Another key focus area will be a deeper understanding of the power of data on a global scale. Rather than the emergence of entirely new types of data, the most profound change will be the evolution in data collection and access methods, as well as the increasing scale and diversity of data.

An exciting change, I hope, will be the seamless integration of clinical trials into the care continuum. Patients should own their data and clinical trial data should be included into patients’ electronic health records. Vice versa, electronic health records of study participants should be connected to clinical trial databases. With the ability to collect more detailed and continuous data rather than mere snapshots in time, personalized and detailed assessments of the true effects of therapies under study become possible and long-term follow-up data collection can be integrated into everyday clinical practice.

From a regulatory perspective, I hope to see the strengthening of the partnership between industry and regulatory agencies. I envision a landscape where frequent and collaborative interactions with regulatory bodies prevail, characterized by transparent sharing of information and joint evaluation of next steps. This approach will foster more trust, efficiency, and effective decision-making.

Given the constantly evolving nature of our industry and the world we operate in, speculation becomes inevitable. However, I have unwavering confidence that UCB will be at the forefront of driving the improvement of the industry's approach to innovation. By embracing emerging technologies, exploring novel trial designs, and prioritizing patient-centricity, UCB will contribute significantly to advancing the field.

OSP: When did your interest in science develop? What piqued your interest?

My genuine interest in people, coupled with a fascination for human psychology, sociology, and biology, fuelled my passion to become a physician. From an early age, I possessed an inherent inclination towards understanding and helping others, making a career in medicine a natural choice. Despite my parents working in different fields, I couldn't imagine myself pursuing anything other than becoming a doctor.

I enrolled at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. This esteemed institution provided me with a comprehensive education and a platform to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to embark on a fulfilling medical career.

OSP: Can you tell us about your journey to where you are now?

While completing my medical studies, I ventured into basic research for my medical doctoral thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics in Germany. Immersed in studying specific subcellular structures, my focus shifted away from the multidimensional aspects of human beings that had always driven my interest. Recognizing this, I transitioned back to practicing medicine at the University Hospital for seven years.

As the demands of patient care and the pursuit of high-quality scientific research became challenging to reconcile, I made a pivotal decision. I chose to contribute to the clinical development of meaningful therapies that address unmet needs. This decision made three decades ago, remains one of the best choices I have ever made. It has allowed me to partner closely with patients, gaining profound insights into their needs, and integrating this understanding into our medicine development plans, strategic thinking, and governance processes.

I am privileged to work alongside brilliant, passionate colleagues worldwide. Every day, we collaborate in problem-solving and benefit from the diversity of thinking, educational backgrounds, and cultural perspectives that drive innovation.

OSP: Have you encountered any bumps in the road along the way?

Through my professional journey, I have come to recognize the significance of leadership, not just in the business realm but also in managing my own career. I have learned that decisive action and courage are essential, leading me to make bold personal decisions along the way. These choices included leaving an academic career to venture into the uncertain future of the pharmaceutical industry, working in the United States for several years, switching companies, and accepting or declining various opportunities. While not every decision was perfect, they ultimately guided me to the fulfilling position I hold today.

I have discovered that there are always alternatives, and even the absence of a decision is a decision. Therefore, actively making decisions that shape my own life has been crucial, along with pragmatism and contributing to the best possible outcomes. I prioritize building strong teams in all aspects of my life, both professionally and personally. When I fully engage in a topic, I immerse myself completely, and if I cannot give my full commitment, I either decline or delegate.

Throughout my journey, most of the challenges I encountered were scientific in nature, such as molecules not meeting my expectations. I have not experienced a "glass ceiling," but I have learned that doing the right things and working hard alone are not enough to build a successful career. Teamwork, visibility, and consistent high performance have helped shape my career trajectory and have got me where I am today.

OSP: What do you feel most passionate about in your current role?

Patients are what get me out of bed every morning. I feel passionate about making our solutions relevant to the individual needs of each patient. It is crucial to ensure that clinical trials are inclusive of the diverse communities we serve and address the unique situations experienced by each patient.

I believe that meaningful changes can be brought about by providing increased options throughout the clinical trial process. By doing so, we can encourage broader participation from patients in diverse communities, various age groups, and even remote locations. This approach empowers a greater number of people to take part in trials, allowing the diversity of the communities we serve to be reflected in the solutions we develop.

We have a long way to go, but this holistic view has the potential to deepen our understanding of patient characteristics, treatment responses, and the factors that influence outcomes. It opens doors to personalized medicine approaches, where treatments can be tailored to specific patient subgroups based on their unique profiles.

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