Bernie Zeiher, Astellas Chief Medical Officer, On His Unwavering Optimism for the Future of Medicine

When Astellas’ Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Bernie Zeiher, was in medical school, his mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer – a disease that afflicts tens of thousands of Americans every day.

Beyond this deeply personal loss for Bernie and his family, it was an eye-opening experience and a reminder of the long road ahead for many therapeutic areas in healthcare, then and now.

“It was a changing moment in the sense of seeing even then, although I hadn’t completed my training in medical school, there weren’t as many treatment options available,” he said in a recent video interview.

During a visit to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Bernie discussed his highly personal entry into medicine, his reflections on more than 15 years in helping to develop innovative treatments, and his clear and unwavering optimism for the future.

At Astellas, Bernie has global responsibility for all phases of drug development, which a focus on ensuring efficiency in early development efforts to address areas of high unmet medical need, especially in oncology and building capabilities in new therapeutic areas such as muscle diseases and regenerative medicine.

While tragedy is an unfortunately common thread in medicine, Bernie has seen the direct benefits of pharmacological therapies through his sons’ respective battles against chronic illness.

“My younger son has narcolepsy [and] my older son has ulcerative colitis,” he said, noting the treatments they’re on have been life-changing.

“But I also realize they’re still young, they’ve got a long life ahead of them and they’re potentially going to need other therapies in the future,” Bernie continued. “So the continuing motivation to bring therapies forward is there for me and hopefully for the whole industry because they’re going to need it and so are many other patients.”

Bernie said that he and his colleagues consistently keep patients front and center in their thinking, which is leading to significant and rapid accelerations in the pace of targeted drug discovery.

“I’m very optimistic about the future because the promise of personalized medicines has begun to be seen,” he said.

The benefits of these advancements are proving valuable for patients, payers and providers. And, as new discoveries occur, new needs have surfaced, highlighting the continued importance of developing innovative therapies and creating a public policy environment that supports medical invention.

Although the vast majority of medicines in development won’t make it to market, patient-centric public policy advances are critical when it comes to creating an environment that encourages and incentivizes R&D investments.

A system that is open to taking chances and exploring new paths will occasionally lead to dead ends, but, as Bernie explained, “that’s where you get your motivation even amidst the failures. When you do have a success, that just really tops it off and makes it all worthwhile.”

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