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By Kate Silver
When Mace Rothenberg, MD, was named Pfizer’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) last year, he saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime. This was the chance for him to bring together the lessons he’d learned throughout his career in order to help patients and physicians make more informed, potentially critical medical decisions to achieve better health outcomes. It was also an opportunity to bring together two critical organizations – Medical and Safety – under a new identity and purpose as Worldwide Medical and Safety (WMS). Rothenberg has spent more than four decades in drug research and development, first in academia (at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio and then at Vanderbilt University) before moving to industry to join Pfizer, where, as Head of Clinical Development & Medical Affairs for Oncology and Chief Development Officer for Oncology his team successfully developed and received regulatory approval for 11 new cancer medicines over a period of 8 years.
Reflecting on those roles, Rothenberg says that each position has allowed him to make an even greater impact for patients, and for that, he’s grateful. “Each time that I felt I had mastered the skills of my current job, a new opportunity would come along that could challenge me to develop new skills and by doing so, contribute in a more substantial way. These opportunities always came in the form of an unsolicited phone call so I tell people early in their career that when the phone rings, answer it, because you never know what opportunities might be in store,” he says.
As Chief Medical Officer, Rothenberg brought all of his experience together, infusing innovation, insight and a fresh perspective into building Pfizer’s Worldwide Medical and Safety organization. In broad terms, WMS provides people inside and outside the company – including Pfizer colleagues, patients, physicians, care-givers and regulatory authorities - with the information they need on to make informed medical decisions regarding the safe and appropriate use of Pfizer medications.
One year into his position leading a newly created global organization we sat down and talked to Rothenberg about his job as Chief Medical Officer, what he’s most excited about for the future, and how he spends his time away from the office.
Looking back on your first year as CMO, what has surprised you the most?
Mace Rothenberg: The thing that surprised me the most is the impact that Worldwide Medical and Safety has on Pfizer, and on the external world that we touch with our medicines. For example, when it comes to our impact on Pfizer, we help our clinical development teams make the most robust, best informed decisions about the appropriate use of our medicines through analysis of large external data bases that can help teams put their clinical study results into a broader medical context as well as through the use of quantitative benefit-risk analysis and patient preference studies. When it comes to our impact on external stakeholders, we are responsible for the Global Medical Grants program and oversee Pfizer’s compassionate access program Pfizer CAReS. These are just a few examples of the many ways in which we contribute to Pfizer’s purpose, Breakthroughs That Change Patients’ Lives.
Looking ahead, what are you most excited about as CMO?
I’m excited to apply the innovations that our programs have brought forward, and to show how they are allowing us to achieve higher quality, be more efficient, have more of an impact and enable better decisions by all parties. One example is the work being done in Global Medical Information to create “chatbots ”, or “medibots”, that allow individuals to access information in an interactive way online using an automated tool. Things that we’re get asked again and again—like the time that a Pfizer vaccine can be left at room temperature before losing potency —really lend themselves to automation.
You spent a number of years in academia. What lessons have you brought with you from that part of your career?
Even before I joined Pfizer, I realized how important it was to maintain an ecosystem that promoted interactions between industry, academia, and governmental agencies like the NIH. No matter how good any one of those entities might be, the only way we have translated new knowledge into life-saving therapies and vaccines is through the engagement of all three.
Academia is really charged with understanding the biology and genomics of disease and pursuing through basic research, clinical trials, and translational research that bridges the two. The expertise of pharma and biotech enables these observations to be translated into medicines that can help people. We are able to make substantial investments over many years in the evaluation of those new therapies without certainty that those investments will ever come to fruition. But when those insights into basic biology of disease can be translated into new medicines, it can lead to remarkable breakthroughs. Having a background in oncology has given me a front row seat to this. Diseases that were not curable or even treatable when I started my training 35 years ago can now be effectively controlled and, in some cases, cured.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working? I see on your Twitter profile you’re an amateur mixologist?
That’s been fun! If I’m out and have an interesting cocktail, I’ll ask the bartender for the recipe. I’ve begun to compile a little catalogue of those. I grew up in New York and moved back in 2010. I love going to the theater, restaurants, cultural events. I also like to get out and exercise when I can. I really try to take advantage of New York.
I heard a rumor your daughter is a Broadway actress?
That’s right. She’s been on Broadway three times. I’m so proud that she realized a dream she had since she was a little girl. I also have a son who’s living in Colorado. He's been there since college. He loves living there for the outdoors and skiing. It’s been great fun seeing him follow his passions as well.
It sounds like they follow after their dad in following their passions. What sparked your interest in medicine?
It was a field that could combine my interest and curiosity in science with my desire to make a difference by helping others. It has not only lived up to but exceeded that hope. I feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience medicine in so many different settings and to contribute as much as I could to each. It’s been a career filled with hard work and long hours, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As Confucius said, “Choose a job that you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. Medicine has been that for me.