Innovative medicines and new approaches push new limits in the treatment of rare diseasesOur great hopes for the future are genetics and targeted treatments
Talkative Dr. Anja Silič, mag. farm., heads the field of rare diseases for the Adriatic region at Pfizer’s Ljubljana office. She loves traveling to far away countries even though she spends much of her time traveling for work. She is usually found somewhere in the Balkans, her exact location depending on the current problems that need to be solved so that patients can receive the medicine they need in due time. Her free time is tight and she often jokes that she trains short course running in airports. The work she performs is perfect for her because she communicates very well and has no problems with cultural differences.
What is your area of expertise and what is your job?
I manage marketing and sales of medicines for rare diseases in the Adriatic region, consisting of ex Yugoslavia and Albania. Our role is to assure that patients with rare diseases in these markets have access to our medicines. We strive to offer medicines available in the European Union to patients throughout the Adriatic region even though the conditions of medicinal product supply in other countries are much worse than in Slovenia, which can cause substantial differences in patient survival. A key element of our work is also the education of patients and physicians. We can only think about rare diseases if we know something about them. In order to discover them, physicians must be aware of the diseases and know there is a cure available. This makes diagnosing rare diseases much easier. Physicians must also know how to talk to the patient and what to ask to get the information they need. That is why we cooperate closely with doctors, as well as associations of patients with rare diseases which are very active. Especially in Croatia and Serbia their role in medicinal product supply is essential. Together with our partners we draft informational materials on diseases. Our main therapeutic areas are endocrinology and metabolic diseases (such as low growth hormone, acromegaly, Gaucher’s disease), haematology (hemophilia A and B), amiloidosis and transplantations. Our role is to present medicinal products for these areas with all of their benefits and weaknesses. Pharmacy is much more than just selling medicines, in fact most of what we do is informing and education.
What was the course of your professional career?
I have been with Pfizer for 21 years. This is my first job. I finished the Faculty of Pharmacy and came to the company because my diploma thesis researched the pharmacokinetics of a Pfizer medicine. The Slovenian office just opened and needed pharmacists. In the beginning we had five medicines and a small team. Now the medicines market is much bigger and so is the competition. As an expert associate I initially covered antiinflamatory medicines and then worked in a number of sales and marketing roles (cardiology, diabetes, pain) and assisted in the registration and classification of medicines. With the last reorganisation five years ago I took on the field of rare diseases which is exactly my expertise as I also completed a Ph.D. in biomedicine during my work.
What brings you a sense of satisfaction in your work?
I definitely feel we are working for a better and higher quality treatment of patients which directly improves their quality of life and extends life expectancy. Usually it is not a single medicine that saves a patient but rather a combination of several medicines. I am satisfied when we successfully achieve the placement of rare diseases among the priorities that are considered. I am also happy when patients get treatment when they need it, when a child grows to their proper height with the help of growth hormone and when patients feel good and live quality lives in spite of their severe diseases.
What did you want to become as a child?
My professional aspirations changed from decade to decade. As a little girl I loved braiding hair and wanted to be a hairdresser. But I always said I wanted to be a doctor. Well, in secondary school I was drawn to chemistry, medicines, experiments, accuracy. When I was deciding between medicine and pharmacy, I chose the latter. Everyone was worried that I would not be able to get a job as a pharmacist because at the time Slovenia did not have as many offices of international pharma companies and pharmacists could for the most part only find jobs in pharmacies. Then the Pfizer office opened and I was able to get a job here. I really like the scientific aspect of my work, so the fact that we are not just selling medicines but also discovering new treatment options.
What motivates you most in your work and life in general? Do you have a personal motto you adhere to?
My main motivation for work are satisfied patients, good medicines and innovations. New therapies are coming, we are investing a lot into development and the era of gene therapy is beginning. We are no longer talking just about treatment options, but also the potential for a full cure. These scientific breakthroughs give me strength because the diseases our department covers are very serious. If they are not diagnosed in time, they usually end badly. That is why our work is important. We raise awareness among physicians and patients and empower them to recognize signs of disease and consult a doctor or diagnose the condition as soon as possible.
I am also motivated by work in an international environment and transfer of good practices among countries. Sometimes our work actually moves borders, for example when we help a certain country access a certain medicine. It is a great pleasure to be able to contribute to patient care. Physicians are also thankful for our efforts and the gratitude is greater the further south you go.
In my personal life I wish for a better balance between work and free time because I really am on the road a lot. I do like to go to theater or the opera and charge my batteries through culture. As far as working out is concerned, I practice short sprints in airports because flights often get delayed (laughs). Mountaineering is another hobby of mine, skiing in winter and sailing in summer, but traveling remains my greatest passion. I visit more remote places at least once per year, I love Africa. It is a whole different world. The eyes see very far in steppes and savannas and one profoundly feels just how small we really are. My last trip was to Kirgizia and next year I am going to Korea. For my travels I usually choose destinations without cell phone coverage because there is usually always somebody that needs me. Traveling for work is a different thing altogether. Sights are usually limited to hotels and meeting halls and there is always cell reception (laughs). But I do try and take half an hour for a walk as well, and I usually sleep more during business trips than I do at home (laughs).
Which aspect of your work do you wish people knew more about? What is the most common misconception regarding your work?
I wish people knew that pharmacists and physicians are partners and that we both work for a single objective - the patient. That is why we share useful information, news, discuss projects. That is also how we get good ideas. Contacts with other countries allow us to exchange positive experiences and best practices. Education at congresses is also important because that is where global new developments are presented that we can then introduce at home. It is wrong to say that we only work for numbers and sales. The financial side is part of every business. After all, medicine too needs to keep an eye on costs and balances. Losses benefit no one. But that is only one side of our story. The other side of our work, especially in the field of rare diseases, is the discovery and raising awareness in the public about diseases and new methods of treatment.
How will medicine develop in the future and which areas will see the greatest advances?
In the next few years gene treatment is set to make a breakthrough in the treatment of rare diseases. This will be a whole new approach to treatment where we will be able to repair the gene that causes the disease. Diseases will be cured and not only treated. Such solutions may still be quite a way off, but not that far into the future as clinical trials for certain diseases are already in their finishing phase.
How do you see our society in a few decades and how will your current work contribute to our future society?
It is hard to say, I am not Nostradamus, but I do hope we will be healthier and more able to cooperate, be more tolerant. Communication is the main problem of our society. Sometimes we put individual goals ahead of the goals that would benefit the entire society. I wish the state would assure appropriate treatment and find the funds for new treatments so that we can offer them in Slovenia and around the world. More and more work is being done in individualizing treatments and our main hopes for the future are genetics and targeted treatment which is already present in oncology. Of course, it takes plenty of small steps to make a bigger one.