Editor’s note: This story is part of our 2022 PharmaVoice 100 feature.
Electrical engineering isn’t the most common stepping stone into drug development. But for Dr. John Tsai, the former president of global drug development and chief medical officer at Novartis, the “deep sense of curiosity” that initially led him to pursue an engineering degree is also what also guided him toward medical school and the life sciences. An up-close encounter with the impact innovations can make on patients was also a catalyst.
According to one of his nominators, Tsai’s grandmother had a stroke when he was in college, which was diagnosed using a medical scanner — a detection tool that ultimately helped her make a healthy recovery.
“As he had experienced first-hand how medical technology could make a difference, this prompted him to start working with medical scanners and later go to medical school,” one of his nominators says.
At the time, Tsai had to leave a job at GE to study medicine. But once he entered the healthcare field and landed in pharma, he would continue his work at major companies.
At Pfizer, he served as the cardiovascular group leader; then during an 11-year stint at Bristol Myers Squibb, he worked as the global head of late phase clinical development, among other major roles.
As his career unfolded, that initial sense of curiosity he had as a student evolved into a penchant for innovation.
“[Tsai] is a natural innovator, and I think this stems from his inherent curiosity and unique engineering mindset,” one of his nominators says. “[Tsai] and I regularly have ‘What if?’ conversations.”
In 2018, Tsai stepped into the head of global drug development and chief medical officer role at Novartis and took on the enormous responsibility it brought.
“We have more than 160 projects in clinical development, and over 500 ongoing clinical trials targeting around 50 diseases,” his nominator writes.
While managing the vast and deep pipeline, Tsai has been able to pave the way toward singular accomplishments — including the U.S. approval of more than 10 new medicines. Tsai has also leveraged his innovative mindset in broader areas of the company’s pipeline — oncology in particular.
“Thanks to [Tsai’s] ambition and leadership, our industry-leading oncology pipeline has more than 45 compounds across more than 70 development programs,” a nominator says. “We are building up capabilities and capacities across four platforms — cell therapy, radioligand therapy, targeted therapy and immuno-oncology — to help us reimagine cancer care and make significant strides in the advancements of precision medicine.”
“The most important trend that I see in drug development now is the breakthroughs in scientific advancement for platform therapies such as gene therapies, RNA based therapies and advancements in engineered antibodies.”
Former president, global drug development and chief medical officer, Novartis
To pull all this off, Tsai has had to bring to the table new approaches for drug development.
“One of my first charges from [Tsai] was to develop a clear portfolio prioritization schema that would allow the clinical development team to highlight where we can develop first-in-class or first-in-indication medicines that could change the standard of care,” one of his nominators writes. “This was a very bold shift from the past approach and has already yielded promising results.”
But getting these kinds of results requires trust from his team, which Tsai says he cultivates by being “strategic and visionary while being authentic.”
“I let others know they should never go home at the end of the day not knowing what I’m thinking,” he says. “I tell others they may not like what I have to say — but I will be honest and say the same thing under all circumstances.”
Even with these successes, Tsai says there’s at least one advancement in medicine he’s still swimming toward.
“My blue ocean is the opportunity to create truly personalized medicine for each patient,” he says. “We currently treat diseases with a broad tool based on evidence from clinical trials … [which] doesn’t represent the patient population afflicted with the disease.”
Editor’s note: In April, Novartis announced that Tsai left the company, which is undergoing a restructuring.