Taking on Challenges that Matter, Career in Life Sciences Opportunity to Help People Live Better Lives
Penny Wan didn’t always plan on a career in pharmaceuticals or biotech. She started her studies at Monash University in Melbourne in the computer science program, because at the time it was the most cutting-edge field to go into. Penny saw the potential for technology to change the world and she wanted to have an impact. But she quickly realized that programming really didn’t “speak to” her. Switching to biochemistry and pharmacology because she found human science came more naturally, Penny became intrigued by how our bodies work in a fine equilibrium, and how problems occur when this is disrupted. This decision to course-correct had uncovered Penny’s true north.
“I truly believe that science is core to understanding how things work, with the promise to make things better, the only limit being our imagination,” Penny said. “As professionals in the life sciences industry, we have the potential to harness the latest technologies and science to address unprecedented challenges, and some of the most feared diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s,” she says. “History is full of these examples such as the discovery of penicillin and the development of vaccines and later, medicines to treat AIDS and manage non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. We are witnessing the life science industry again come to the fore with biotechnology companies working day and night to develop vaccines or identify treatments for COVID-19.”
After her studies, Penny returned to Hong Kong and decided to explore the business side of health. She started her career in the marketing team of a healthcare company, then went on to hold a succession of role traversing sales, commercial and management, leaving her footprints in Taiwan, China and the US. Today she is Vice President & General Manager, Amgen Japan Asia Pacific (JAPAC) Region, one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies.
Lifetime passion for improving patients’ lives
Penny’s leadership in the biotech industry over the last two decades has been based on a strong belief in three fundamental tenets of business: people, products and passion. Her enthusiasm for science unchanged since those early days at Monash University. Penny is now committed to bringing communities and stakeholders together to serve patients and their caregivers, and to drive change.
Based in Hong Kong where Amgen’s Asia headquarters and clinical trial hub are situated, Penny has grown the company’s presence from humble beginnings with just a single affiliate in Australia, to Japan Asia Pacific which now consists of over 2,000 employees across 14 markets with eight affiliates in Australia and New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. Amgen continues to build its global presence in these important markets. It has 5 clinical trial hubs in Asia with 66 active studies, 909 active sites and more than 2,111 subjects to ensure a promising clinical pipeline. One out of seven Amgen patients enrolled globally are from the Asia-Pacific region.
Penny got into the life sciences because she wanted to work on problems that would have a real impact on people’s lives. At Amgen, she leads a team focused on the mission to use science and biotechnology to improve health for patients and society in Asia and across over 100 markets worldwide, using human genetics and biology to create medicine that stops disease. Amgen has the widest variety of therapeutic tools in the industry, focusing on key therapeutic areas including cardiovascular, bone health and oncology to identify unmet medical needs and leverage biologics manufacturing expertise to strive for solutions that improve health outcomes and dramatically improve people’s lives. Amgen has helped millions of patients around the world and is developing a pipeline of medicines with breakaway potential.
“At Amgen, everything we do is ultimately for patients. Our products are not the end of a process but the beginning of a journey. We have focus on supporting the most high-risk patients to stay well, remain independent and enjoy life,” said Penny.
Tackling ageing is a personal mission
Penny is also passionate about the potential for biotech to play a role in healthy ageing. Elderly patients are at higher risk for non-communicable diseases, many of which can be managed with proper medication but left untreated, can pose a significant burden on healthcare systems. Amgen is actively shifting from a transactional approach to a transformative approach – from an acute care or break it fix it focus to a predict and prevent model which aims to keep people independent, ageing well and in turn actively participating socially and economically. Penny believes that collaborations between the public and private sector, better coordinated care with the patient at the centre, and timely access to innovative medicines are collectively required in order to keep people out of hospital and empowered to actively manage their condition.
“For example, osteoporosis and fragility fractures are a major cause of premature death, morbidity and dependence in the elderly and represent a significant economic burden to society,” said Penny. Over the last decade, Amgen has established itself as a leader in bone health, contributing to advancing the understanding and management of osteoporosis through biological therapeutic innovations to prevent bone loss and fractures. Amgen partners with the healthcare community to systematically identify those at high risk of a fragility fracture and support investigation, diagnosis and treatment, thus keeping our vulnerable society members healthy and independent, by preventing grievous fractures such as those of the hip or spine. Programs such as Fracture Liaison Services have the opportunity to transform healthcare systems.
The same approach works for many other non-communicable diseases, including those who suffered from heart attack or stroke. According to a research project “The cost of inaction: Secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease in Asia-Pacific” reported by The Economist Intelligence Unit, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death across the region and the importance of secondary prevention is increasingly being emphasized. “Applying the predict and prevent model, Amgen is using human genetics and cutting-edge biology to search for new checkpoint targets that will work in more types of cancer and more patients, while at the same time, the company is raising the awareness of secondary prevention through healthcare community collaborations,” Penny added.
For Penny, it’s not just a professional matter, but also a personal one since her own mother is getting older and in the Asian culture, older people are both much revered and relied on by the extended family. “My mom is in her late seventies. She leads a happy and busy life and she enjoys traveling and engaging with family and friends. She likes us both to stay fit and well and so reminds me to do body checks, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet. My mom relates to me stories about her friends disconnecting from their circle after a bad fall, stroke, or being placed in an elderly home when they can no longer live on their own. I can hear her own fear which I share, hence, this is definitely personal. My hope is that she stays independent and wakes up every morning with a big smile on her face doing what she loves, and I would like to see the same for her friends. This is where our work at Amgen matters,” Penny said.
Since its founding 40 years ago, Amgen has strived to steer science to new discoveries to aid people suffering from serious illnesses by studying the vast world of human genes. Penny was drawn to the opportunity to work for a company that has created significant impacts, making drugs for chronic kidney disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, migraine headaches, inflammation, osteoporosis, and other serious illnesses. Now, the company has become a premier independent biotech firm, employing more than 23,000 people across the world and making some two dozen medicines reaching millions of patients.
Motivated by working with Amgen’s inspiring team
Penny said this has been possible thanks to Amgen’s inspiring team that has gone above and beyond our goals. “In JAPAC, I have the privilege of building and working with a team of incredibly talented and dedicated staff, who together currently serve over one million Asian patients to-date.” she said. Penny gave credit to the leadership team and the talents that Amgen has recruited and seconded from other Amgen geographies – proving the importance of talent attraction and staff development.
With over 60 percent of the world’s elderly population expected to reside in Asia-Pacific by 2030, Amgen is working to address the rising healthcare burdens in this fast-ageing region. The region is as diverse as it is challenging. Asia already accounts for half of the world’s cardiovascular and cancer burden and, in the not too distant future, 50% of the world’s hip fractures. Penny believes that biotech can play an important role in addressing these challenges, and through innovation aims to help the world’s fastest-aging region tackle some of the toughest societal and financial issues.
Of course, these medicines only make a positive impact if people have access to them. Amgen’s “Access to Medicines” approach is based on a recognition that patients living in low- and middle-income countries face multiple barriers to accessing biologic medicines. Those barriers include healthcare infrastructure and supply chain challenges to safely handle and administer biologics, as well as affordability in countries that lack adequate reimbursement and insurance systems. In her role as head of the JAPAC region, Penny works with partners and stakeholders to overcome such access challenges and barriers through a multi-faceted Access to Medicines approach tailored to the unique aspects of biologic medicines and to the needs of specific markets.
The COVID-19 outbreak has put healthcare systems around the world under tremendous pressure. Amgen and the Amgen Foundation committed up to US$12.5 million to support global relief efforts to address critical needs in communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds are used to support emergency response efforts in Amgen’s international communities, patient-focused organizations that are mounting their own response efforts, and international relief efforts by Direct Relief and International Medical Corps. The Amgen Foundation also matches donations made by Amgen staff around the globe who wish to contribute their own funds to the relief efforts.
Across JAPAC, Amgen has pulled together to serve patients, safeguarded the teams, and contributed to relief efforts across the region. Penny and her team have also partnered with multiple healthcare stakeholders to ensure patients’ access to medication and services, as well as to encourage them to stay on treatment. For example, Amgen supported Fracture Liaison Services for its coordinators to regularly reach out to osteoporosis patients registered with the program to reinforce the importance of adhering to therapy. The country teams are also exploring ways to utilize telehealth tools and initiatives, reimagining biotech solutions and services for patients in the era of peri-COVID-19. Taking an example, Amgen Japan has implemented an on-and-offline care model for dermatology patients as an alternative to face-to-face consultations with healthcare professionals. This pilot program has been designed in collaboration with local partners in telemedicine to enable doctors and other healthcare professionals to continue providing consultations and treatments, as well as to remotely prescribe and deliver medication to patients with chronic dermatological diseases.
Great people critical to Amgen’s success
In addition to making sure Amgen has great products in the pipeline, the company also needs to have a long-term pipeline of great people. The Amgen Foundation seeks to advance excellence in science education to inspire the next generation of innovators and invest in strengthening communities where Amgen staff members live and work. Since 2014, the Amgen Foundation has contributed nearly US$4 million to programs in the JAPAC region, including Amgen Scholars and Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE). ABE reaches nearly 90,000 students and 1,500 teachers each year globally and has impacted approximately 700,000 students to date. In JAPAC, ABE is available in China and Hong Kong, in partnership with prestigious institutions such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In addition, five prestigious universities – University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University and University of Melbourne – have been added to the distinguished Amgen Scholars list.
“I know there are students out there who are just like I was. They want to make a big impact and improve people’s lives. But they maybe aren’t aware of the opportunities in biotechnology. We want to find, inspire, and empower those students through the ABE,” Penny said.
“We take pride in offering best-in-class and innovative methods and drugs that predict, prevent and treat life-altering illnesses. It’s truly rewarding to witness the real impact of our efforts for patients and their caregivers. I believe I’m in the right place at the right time, and at Amgen with the right therapies that could help patients who are suffering from cardiovascular, bone and oncology diseases,” she said.
Penny is still following the same path and passion she started back in university, albeit different than what she initially imagined. The drive to be at the forefront of the biggest challenges is still there, as is the spirit of commitment to community that is at her core. She continues to pursue her passion by working on issues that are important to her personally, such as women’s health and aging, helping millions of patients in the region with bone and cardio-vascular health, as well as oncology treatments. “I’m extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to work with talented colleagues at some of the most esteemed biotech companies,’ Penny said. “We still have a long way to go, but I’m humbled to lead our team of passionate staff to make a difference for the patients and communities we serve.”
Penny Wan is Amgen’s Vice-President and General Manager of the Asia-Pacific region. With over 20 years of experience in the biopharmaceuticals industry, she leads Amgen’s expansion efforts in the region, which encompasses 14 markets including China, Japan and Australia. Since joining the company in 2014, she has been instrumental in building Amgen’s commercial presence in the region, ensuring that innovative medicines reach patients, payers and physicians in these markets.
Prior to Amgen, Ms Wan was general manager of Roche Pharma China, which became one of the fastest-growing multinational corporations in the country. She spearheaded innovative partnership solutions with government, professional and patient groups to improve access and outcomes for patients. Ms Wan also worked in the pharmaceuticals division of Wyeth, where she held various management, marketing and commercial positions in the US, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
During her time in China, Ms Wan served as an executive committee member of RDPAC (R&D-based Pharmaceutical Association Committee), where she led the industry-shaping efforts in biologics and served as vice-president of the Shanghai Association of Enterprises with Foreign Investments. She received the 2013 White Magnolia Memorial Award from the Shanghai municipality in recognition of her contributions to the city.