Pernilla Sandwall took over the helm as the new CEO of development company WntResearch a little more than a month ago. She joins the company during a very interesting time, ahead of interim results from the phase II study NeoFox that are expected in the fourth quarter. BioStock has spoken to Pernilla to find out more about her background and to get her view on the journey ahead.
After more than 20 years at pharmaceutical giant MSD (Merck & Co. Inc.) and 10 years at Stockholm-based InDex Pharmaceuticals, Pernilla Sandwall brings considerable experience to WntResearch. Her experience is combined with a great commitment to life science, which was cemented already as a child.
“I had a lot of problems with my ears growing up and had a doctor who was a friend of my parents. I remember that, if he was the one working when we got to the hospital, I knew everything would be fine – even though it hurt and he often poked holes in the eardrum. He was like a big, kind and very wise teddy bear. I guess that he kindled my interest in the human body and in curing or alleviating diseases.”
Started her career at MSD
That interest paved the way for a pharmacy education that later, after some fortunate circumstances, led straight into MSD. She got to work on clinical trials and a dream was thus fulfilled. During her time at MSD, Pernilla was involved in taking several projects through clinical development and onwards to the market. On top of that, she soon discovered that her inspiration was not just found in the borderland between chemistry and medicine.
“I quickly realised that personnel responsibility was a lot of fun and after a few I became the group manager. It’s still incredibly interesting and rewarding to work with people, at the same time it is also one of the most challenging things to do. I like to work with development and like to put the pieces of the puzzle together in terms of priorities and resources; both financial and personnel and make everyone want to pull in the same direction. This applies regardless of whether you work with small or large organisations.”
Several years in leading positions
Pernilla’s leadership skills led her to join the management team for clinical research in MSD Sweden and then took her across the Atlantic where she worked at the headquarters in New Jersey. She mainly worked with patient recruitment strategies and how best to conduct clinical trials, as well as an international expert during many process changes. After a few years, however, both she and her family felt that it was time to move back to Sweden. Then, when Merck bought Schering Plough, Pernilla had been employed for 20 years and began to feel it was time to do something else.
“After 22 years at MSD, I didn´t know anything about the Swedish pharmaceutical industry, except of course for the big companies. I got a job at InDex and went from a company with thousands of employees to one with twelve. People said I was brave to take that step, but for me, there wasn’t much difference actually. Even if I had worked for a large company, you still work in a small team and it was the same for InDex. The big difference is that in a small company you often have to go externally to seek help.”
Broadened experience at InDex Pharmaceuticals
However, joining a smaller company meant that she became more directly involved in the other parts of pharmaceutical development, such as regulatory, preclinical development, manufacturing, patents and financing. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, she was involved when InDex raised no less than 500 MSEK to finance a phase III study with the drug candidate cobitolimod. After 10 years at the company, however, she felt that it was once again time to do something else. She had previously had thoughts of trying out for a CEO role and when the opportunity at WntResearch opened up, she felt that the stars were aligned.
“I bring my experience from a large global company like MSD together with all the experience from InDex, so I feel that I have a good overview when it comes to drug development. I think that will be valuable going forward. We are in phase II and have treated many patients. We are exploring a drug candidate, Foxy-5, with a new biology that could give us exciting new insights into how cancer spreads. We need to develop good plans for the further development so that Foxy-5 can reach all the way to registration and to market.”
She also highlights her regulatory background as a good asset at the stage that the company is entering.
“To succeed, we need to understand the regulatory requirements so that we get the right documentation. We also need to constantly monitor the market need so that we are in the right place in the existing treatment landscape. And when we draft our plan, we must not forget to take the health economic parameters into account. There needs to be an economic benefit for society to pay for the treatment.”
Invested in WntResearch when she joined
Pernilla sees great potential in the company’s development, given the medical need that exists. The drug candidate Foxy-5 is primarily targeted at colon cancer, but has also shown potential as a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, AML. She also recently backed up her belief in the company by buying shares in WntResearch for 125,000 SEK.
“I know that it’s not enough for me to talk about me believing in the substance. However, my main motivation is not my personal finances. There is a great need for this type of treatment and if I can be involved in making a difference for the patients, I want to do it.”
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