Christi Shaw of Kite On The 5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Every patient with cancer needs a support system. The role of a caregiver is incredibly important — they provide personal care, help navigate the healthcare system and manage appointments, support day-to-day household tasks and so much more. Deciding to be a caregiver is more complicated than one might think, but there’s also no denying that there are positive outcomes to caregiving. I felt immense fulfillment being able to take care of my sister, and as many people have told me, they wish they had the opportunity to take care of their loved ones before they passed.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?
In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christi Shaw, CEO of Kite, a Gilead Company.
Christi Shaw is the Chief Executive Officer of Kite, a Gilead Company, where she is responsible for the end-to-end, global cell therapy business. Based in Santa Monica, California, Kite is pursuing the ambitious goal of a cure for cancer with an industry-leading cell therapy pipeline and state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities in CAR T-cell therapy. Driven by values, integrity and a deep connection to people living with cancer, Christi enables and accelerates innovation to offer unprecedented hope to patients battling difficult-to-treat diseases.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up on a farm in Iowa with a close-knit family and learned early on about the value of hard work and family support. My father was a businessman and my mother was a stay-at-home mom who was deeply committed to philanthropy. I kept busy between school, sports and a lot of early mornings and long days doing chores on our farm. While I’m grateful that all of the physical work taught me a great deal of resilience, it also made me realize I wanted to challenge myself mentally and I became the first in my family to go to college. I had an interest in biology and chemistry from two of my favorite high school teachers, learned sharp business skills from my father as my lifelong role model, and inspired by my mother, have always had a passion for philanthropy. It was a natural fit for me to pursue a career in science and medicine to help people.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My parents were an incredible support system for me growing up. Seeing how they cared for not only my sisters and I, but also for neighbors in our rural Iowa town, I wanted to do something with my life that gave back. One day in high school, my chemistry teacher told us about his brother who worked for a pharmaceutical company, which immediately stuck with me. I knew I wanted to work at a company that helps people, and I’m proud that I’m still doing that today at Kite, where we’re transforming cancer treatment to help thousands of patients in need. Kite is a pioneer in CAR T-cell therapy, a custom-made, one-time treatment that engineers a patient’s own white blood cells to treat certain kinds of blood cancer. This is truly an individualized medicine with curative intent.
On a more personal note, I lost my mother and sister to cancer at the young ages of 53 and 51. My mother died of breast cancer in 1996 and we were told at the time there was nothing more we could do. We didn’t learn until it was too late that she could have received a therapy that was approved the same year she passed, and had she been referred for it, she could have lived years longer. When my sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an aggressive form of blood cancer, in 2016, I stepped down from my career to become her full-time caregiver as she enrolled in a CAR T clinical trial. While she ultimately lost her battle, I learned a lot from her journey and it inspired my move to Kite where our team is driven every day to help those impacted by cancer.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
Everyone’s been touched by cancer in some way, so it’s deeply meaningful for me and our team at Kite to be able to give patients more time with their loved ones, and ultimately, work towards a cure. With CAR T, we literally hold these patients’ cells in our hands and engineer them to fight their cancer. We’re treating some patients who had previously been told they only have six months to live, and then for them to come through that, that’s the kind of hope that CAR T can give.
There are patients living to see their kids graduate from college, going to family weddings, meeting new grandchildren and booking that dream vacation trip. We had one patient tell us how his family welcomed a new baby girl who was born after he received CAR T treatment. It’s what motivates us every day to change the treatment paradigm for cancer care so that every patient who may benefit from CAR T-cell therapy has access to this treatment.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We’re truly at an exciting inflection point — moving from the early days of treating a few hundred patients and the perception of CAR T being science fiction, to scientific reality today where we’re treating thousands of patients. Earlier this year, one of Kite’s CAR T-cell therapies received FDA approval for the initial treatment of adults with relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma (LBCL). This means patients can now be treated with CAR T earlier instead of enduring high dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, which has been the standard of care for the past 30 years and is a very difficult process. Historically, only 35% of patients actually make it to stem cell transplant because the process is so difficult. With every piece of new research, and every piece of real-world evidence where we see patients benefiting, we inch closer to changing the way cancer is treated with the promise of cell therapy.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?
I would never say I am an authority on the topic of cancer. I am a lifelong learner. My experience with cancer is from a caregiver point of view as well as a 30+ year career working to achieve better outcomes for patients. In my role as CEO of Kite, I’m responsible for the company’s end-to-end, global cell therapy business. My career in the industry has spanned a broad range of therapeutic areas, including 12 years in oncology, and I’ve held responsibilities overseeing the full lifecycle of product portfolios. Since I joined Kite in 2019, we’ve treated nearly 15 times the number of patients in just three years — plus many more who have been reached by our clinical trials. We consider what we get to do every day as a privilege and are anxious to reach more patients through new clinical trials, new indications, and new geographies.
Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is cancer exactly?
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of unhealthy cells, and with blood cancer specifically, it can impact the blood-forming tissue of the immune system. The immune system is the body’s main defense against infection and disease and can differentiate between normal and unhealthy cells. T cells are critical in the immune system’s ability to detect and target cancer cells, however, the immune system is unable to target cancer cells when tumor specific T cells are deficient in number, unable to function properly or can’t recognize cancer cells as foreign to the body. CAR T-cells, which are engineered T cells designed to recognize and attack cancer cells, can potentially overcome these obstacles and harness the power of the immune system to target cancer cells.
What causes cancer?
The exact cause for blood cancers like lymphoma isn’t known. There are also many subtypes of blood cancer that make it difficult to pinpoint exact causes. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), for example, one of the most common cancers in the U.S., is a type of blood cancer that includes multiple subtypes, all originating in the lymphatic system.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
At Kite, we’re focused on treating patients with a range of hematologic malignancies, or blood cancers, including lymphoma and leukemia. Lymphoma is the most common form of blood cancer, with Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) being the two main forms. Large B-cell lymphoma (LBCL) is the most common subtype of NHL and is an aggressive (fast-growing) blood cancer, accounting for every 1 out of 3 lymphomas in the U.S.
Leukemia originates in blood-forming tissue and causes the production of large numbers of abnormal blood cells that enter the bloodstream. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of aggressive blood cancer, and while commonly associated with children, approximately half of all cases occur in adults, where it’s significantly more difficult to treat. We remain committed to researching more ways CAR T-cell therapy can be used in difficult-to-treat cancers.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
When we look at blood cancers specifically, we’ve made great progress over the last decade in improving patient outcomes, but there’s still much work to do. In large B-cell lymphoma, about 30–40% of patients will need second-line treatment, as their cancer will either relapse (return) or become refractory (not respond) to initial treatment. Once cancer has reached a certain point, patients usually go through multiple treatments trying to buy them more time, but now we can offer hope to some patients with CAR T as an individualized, one-time treatment. We now have data showing durable response in patients treated with CAR T alive at five years who haven’t needed additional cancer treatment. It’s the first time in my career I’m able to talk about cancer with a mindset of being able to potentially cure a patient’s disease, and physicians can change the conversation from ending life to extending life.
Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?
There’s always exciting research coming out of the labs, but innovation’s true impact can only be felt when we can reach every eligible patient. CAR T is a truly innovative treatment option that has long-term clinical trial data and experience behind it. Yet still, today, only a fraction of eligible patients receives it. And it has the potential to save lives. Our top priority is making sure that every patient who can benefit from CAR T has access to this therapy as early as possible to potentially save their life. From a broader perspective, I’m excited about the progress being made with CAR T being used earlier in a patient’s course of treatment and research to broaden the use of CAR T beyond blood cancers to potentially treat other diseases.
Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?
The progress we’ve made as an industry would not be possible without the bravery of patients who have entered clinical trials and trusted the science and doctors that have led to breakthrough innovations. With every decision I make as a leader, I try to put myself in a patient’s shoes to make sure everything we’re doing is intentional and intended to improve the patient experience. I constantly remind myself and my team to remember the purpose of our business, which is to create a world with cures for cancer.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
When you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, one of the best things you can do is be informed about the latest research and innovations in cancer treatments to be able to advocate for the right treatment and care. Doing your own research — reviewing patient advocacy resources, speaking to an oncologist and blood cancer specialist, and hearing from other patients who have been through a similar experience — can all help in mapping out a treatment strategy when you or a loved one is facing a blood cancer diagnosis. I can also attest as a caregiver to my sister the toll it takes on mental wellness for both a patient and their caregiver, from the moment of diagnosis onward. Feelings of stress, anxiety and helplessness are inevitable at times, and many will try to suppress feelings of grief to “stay strong.” Especially for patients who have been diagnosed with or fighting cancer during the pandemic, a simple yet effective way to support a loved one is taking a moment to check in with them. Let them and their caregivers know they aren’t alone and remind them that you are there to support them.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
One of the biggest misconceptions with CAR T-cell therapy is that it’s expensive for patients and not covered by insurance. In reality, multiple independent cost-effectiveness models have shown that cell therapy is cost effective, and data reflects its value as a one-time, potentially curative treatment. In the U.S., 97% of private health insurance plans, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, cover Kite’s CAR T treatments. Outside the U.S., we have reimbursement in more than 20 countries. It’s also common to assume that CAR T-cell therapy is only available at a few hospitals, but we partner with more than 275 of the world’s top hospitals and academic centers in oncology to treat patients.
Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
- Patients should always take an active role in their treatment journey and be informed about their treatment options. Research shows informed patients ask more questions, have an improved understanding and are better able to communicate with their doctor, which leaves them feeling confident and better able to manage their healthcare. Blood cancers like lymphoma and leukemia can be complex, so one of the best things a patient can do is see a specialist in blood cancer who can provide additional information about the latest treatment options or clinical trials that may be right for them. With my older sister’s blood cancer diagnosis, we knew to meet with a specialist and look at all of our options, which led to us enrolling her in a CAR T clinical trial. While she ultimately lost her battle, access to innovative therapies helped her live longer. I’ll always be grateful for the special moments we otherwise may not have had, like having her at my younger sister’s wedding to walk her down the aisle, meeting her first two grandchildren and vacationing together.
- Ensuring the patient voice is kept front and center is crucial to transforming cancer treatment. Especially given the rapid pace of innovation we’re witnessing, it’s important that we’re providing patients and their caregivers the necessary resources to do their own research and learn about different treatment options. We must empower patients to take charge of their cancer care, know the right questions to ask and self-advocate for the right treatment option.
- Every patient with cancer needs a support system. The role of a caregiver is incredibly important — they provide personal care, help navigate the healthcare system and manage appointments, support day-to-day household tasks and so much more. Deciding to be a caregiver is more complicated than one might think, but there’s also no denying that there are positive outcomes to caregiving. I felt immense fulfillment being able to take care of my sister, and as many people have told me, they wish they had the opportunity to take care of their loved ones before they passed.
- Clinical trials can save lives. Not only could they provide patients access to innovative therapies, but they are critical to advancing new research for some of the most promising targets in cancer treatment today. A memorable story that one woman shared with me was when she was a child, her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and initially given three months to live. But someone helped her grandfather get into a clinical trial, and he lived 30 more years.
- Individualized treatment such as CAR T-cell therapy requires a team approach for success. There is huge complexity involved in cell therapy manufacturing, with hundreds of personnel responsible for ensuring the quality and supply of an individual patient’s cells. The process requires an incredible amount of collaboration and coordination, both internally and with external partners, including treatment centers and referring physicians, to rapidly and reliably deliver a patient’s cells.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My movement would be to strengthen how we communicate across the ecosystem of patients, their oncologists, blood cancer specialists, payers, regulatory bodies and treatment centers where patients may be referred for cutting-edge treatments. For example, only about one out of five potentially eligible patients are aware of CAR T-cell therapy as a treatment option. Getting appropriate patients a timely consult for CAR T-cell therapy is key to ensuring that patients who could benefit are rapidly evaluated and treated. While we’re making progress, every eligible patient should be given the ability to receive treatment and the hope for more time.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I often use my personal LinkedIn to share exciting milestones in the cancer community, and one of the best ways to follow along with Kite news is through our social media on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.