Li, R&D, USA

Head Unit Physician, USA

Li Yan

Hi Li. Tell us what you do at GSK

I am the Head Unit Physician, effectively the lead physician within our oncology R&D organisation. I’m responsible for the design and execution of clinical trials for this therapy area, and also the management of quality and risk. In other words, making sure our activities are always of the highest quality, and have patient safety front of mind.

T-cells engaging and destroying the cancer cell

What is it about oncology R&D that excites you?

Cancer drug development, for me, has always been the most exciting area in pharmaceutical and biotechnology field. With immunotherapy, cell therapy, and targeted agents, we (industry and academic partners) have transformed patient life in many cancer types.

For example, advanced melanoma used to be a deadly disease with the majority of patients dying within a year of diagnosis. But new medicines and the emergence of immunotherapy have significantly extended the lives of patients.

The challenge is now to pair cancer patients with personalised medicine to further improve survival and quality of life. The goal is to convert cancer to a chronic disease, and even to cure cancer in some patients. This is an exciting prospect.


Why GSK?

There are lots of other companies who are investing significantly in oncology R&D but when speaking with friends at GSK, they spoke very positively of the innovative culture and the sense that daring to do things differently in R&D was the norm.

I also knew that in a short space of time, GSK’s oncology business had brought a number of medicines through development and to market. This was hugely appealing to me. Two weeks after joining GSK, the company entered into a deal with Novartis which saw the transfer of our marketed oncology products and late stage R&D. It was a very interesting time to join!

Interesting indeed. How did you feel about that?

It was a real test of my leadership capabilities. From a personal perspective, seeing the company reduce its overall oncology operations was not what I expected when I joined, but I think the experience was the making of me as a leader.

I had two options; to go to another company where things might be more predictable, or, stay and help establish the next generation of oncology medicines. I chose the latter.

What made you choose to stay?

I’ve worked in the industry for a long time and made some big decisions along the way. This was probably the biggest. I chose to stay because I knew that the company was not exiting oncology altogether and was confident in our ambitious plans for the future.

We still retained a significant early stage R&D presence in the most cutting edge areas of cancer medicine R&D, e.g., immune-oncology, cell therapy, and cancer epigenetics, and I wanted to be part of the building effort. I line manage a group of physicians and clinical scientists so I knew full well that this was not just a decision for me. I had to convince my team.

How did you convince your team?

I truly believe in leading by example.  I saw the changes as an opportunity rather than a risk and invested a lot of time explaining to the team that the company had built up a strong oncology business in the past and that this was our chance to be at the forefront of the next phase of innovation. It would have been easy to sulk, but as a leader that wouldn’t have helped anyone.

Li's team

Two years later, and our oncology R&D  is thriving. It’s a key area of focus for the company and in the time since the Novartis deal, we’ve had some assets progress through to late stage development. This makes me super proud of the team and everything that we have accomplished together.

What advice would you give to scientists considering a career in oncology R&D at GSK?

Our oncology unit is a bit like a start-up since the Novartis deal. Sure, there are many other companies that have a much larger oncology presence, but I think the opportunity we have in front of us is huge.

We’re pursuing really interesting science and anyone who joins will have the opportunity to play a really big role in shaping the direction of the business. In many ways, you’d be a founding member of the business!

We also have a very empowering culture. Scientists get to make decisions and the company does a lot to encourage new ideas across all levels of seniority.

Having such a busy role must be very demanding! What do you do to relax outside of work?

The key to everything is balance; work and personal life. At work, I prioritise my workload. Outside of work, it’s really about prioritising things important to me, especially my family.

I also love to write in my spare time so I make time for that too. Who knows, maybe one day I will write my own novel!