"My Job Is to Educate About the Need for New Treatments for Rare Diseases"
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Microbiome Researcher Jeffrey Gordon Receives the 2022 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical ResearchDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
For as long as Hetal Patel can remember, she’s been trying to prove people wrong.
First, it was the members of the close-knit Indian community she grew up in, who assumed she’d get married and have kids immediately after college. (She didn’t.) Then it was the job interviewers who worried Patel wouldn’t succeed in certain healthcare roles without specific work experiences or a traditional medical degree. (Spoiler alert: She’d go on to be super successful in those roles.)
These days, Patel—who works as Medical Director, Global Medical Affairs, Immunodermatology at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson—is taking on another career challenge: bullous pemphigoid , a rare autoimmune blistering skin condition with no cure—yet. Which is why Patel and the team at Janssen are working toward developing immunological advances for patients living with autoantibody-driven diseases, and studying a molecule that may potentially ease symptoms of bullous pemphigoid, and hopefully a number of other autoimmune diseases as well.
“Working in rare diseases is the most gratifying thing about my job,” says Patel. “To be part of a team that’s building something from scratch, across multiple diseases simultaneously with limited to no treatment options—something that’s never been done before—is amazing.”
To learn more about how Patel is blazing a trail, read on.
Did a particular person inspire you to go into your field of study—like a parent, teacher or mentor?
I’m a child of first-generation immigrants, so it was expected that I would follow some type of science or math career. Luckily, I like those subjects!
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a very close friend whose father was a pharmacist who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and I had the opportunity to see his career through her eyes as she followed in his footsteps, and I followed in hers. They really inspired me to pursue a doctorate in pharmacy, which is how I ended up in the industry, working to help bring new therapies, and maybe even cures, to patients. It's been a rewarding career so far.
What part of your work do you enjoy the most?
As part of my job I get to work with patient advocacy—and it’s incredibly fulfilling. My Dad had ALS and his disease progressed so quickly that I never had the chance to engage with a patient advocacy group. Working in this space, with individuals who do so much for patients and their families, has a special place in my heart.
There is something to be said for innovating thinking, reaching outside the box and asking 'why' when you are told something can’t be changed because 'that’s the way it’s always been.'ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
I’m also wired to be an educator. My parents were both teachers and school principals in India before they moved to the U.S. In my role now, I get to educate both at Johnson & Johnson and externally about a new molecule and a new disease state many aren’t familiar with. Getting to do this—to broaden people’s horizons and talk about the science and potential impact on a patient's disease and quality of life—is a part of the job I really love.
What science or health research breakthroughs do you hope to see in your lifetime?
I really hope we can find a new, safe and effective treatment for bullous pemphigoid, an area I'm focused on at Janssen, as there is such a significant unmet need for advances.
Right now, the only treatment options that patients have are steroids or steroid sparing agents, which suppress the body's overactive immune response. Both come with a long list of side effects. So, to be able to one day tell a patient or a provider that we are going to eliminate or significantly reduce the need for these medications with a treatment that is potentially equally—or more—effective, and safer, would be amazing.
I’d also love to see us better understand how to prevent disease. How can we identify someone who’s predisposed to a certain condition and intervene early so that person never becomes a patient? And if they do become a patient, I'd like to see us have new ways to intervene quickly. I think we’re headed in that direction.
And of course, to see a cure for ALS in my lifetime would be remarkable.
What has been your proudest achievement in your life and work so far?
I'm impressed by people who can do humblebrags well. I’m not one of them, but I'll do my best!
I feel proud that both personally and professionally, I’ve accomplished things outside of what was expected of me. Often, Indian women are supposed to take a certain path. I was supposed to go to college, get married, live with my in-laws and have children. My definition of success, and my path to finding it, was different. I did go to college—but then I bought a house, lived on my own and pursued my independence and passion for seeing the world.
Professionally speaking, I think a lot of people had predefined expectations of what skill sets or background I needed to be successful in my last couple of roles. For example, when I interviewed for my role as a medical science liaison (MSL)—which is an educational liaison who acts as a bridge between healthcare companies and healthcare providers—I was fortunate that they took a chance on me because there were some in the organization who felt strongly that without previous MSL experience, I would struggle to establish credibility with high-profile physicians. I left that job a year and a half ago and I am still connected with many of those physicians. I had the drive and desire to learn, and I was successful as a result.
When I have rough days, I’ll text one of my mentors and say, 'Can you remind me of that thing you told me about having potential?'ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
Similarly, when I applied for my current position as Medical Director in Global Medical Affairs, there were those who thought the role could only be done effectively by a physician. Fortunately, my current manager felt differently. I like to think that we proved the skeptics wrong.
What do you wish you knew as a student that you know now?
Just because someone in authority, or with more experience, says things must be a certain way, that doesn’t make it so. There is something to be said for innovative thinking, reaching outside the box and asking “why” when you are told something can’t be changed because “that’s the way it’s always been.”
It's important to be respectful and understand that years of experience can translate to wisdom, but you don’t have to settle for the status quo if you truly believe there’s a better path for you, your team or your organization.
How do you spend a day off?
When I take a day completely off, I’m usually reading historical fiction or planning a vacation.
The last book I read that I loved was
, which is the story of Edward Shackleton and his 1914 expedition team who got stranded in Antarctica and miraculously survived. And in fact, I read the book to prepare for my last vacation—an expedition to Antarctica, on a ship named—you guessed it— Endurance.
What’s the best career or life advice you’ve ever received?
To give myself more credit than I do. I had two mentors early in my career at Johnson & Johnson, both of whom I’m still close with, and they’d often tell me: “You don’t give yourself enough credit. You don’t see your own potential. Lean into it.”
When I have rough "I'm an imposter" days, I’ll text one of them and say, “Can you remind me of that thing you told me about having potential?”
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