Black History and Biotechnology: A Conversation with Dr. Ted Love, President and CEO of Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT)
Mapillar Dahn has three daughters—and they all have sickle cell disease.
But she gained hope thanks to Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT) drug Oxbryta, the first FDA-approved drug targeting the underlying cause of sickle cell disease rather than just its symptoms.
Dahn’s oldest daughter, Tully, was the first public insurance pediatric patient in her state to get approved for the drug, but her youngest, Hajar, who is 11, could not get it because it is indicated for patients age 12 and older. Thankfully, GBT started an expanded access program for the drug in children age 4 to 11, and Hajar was one of the first patients in that age group in the United States to get access to Oxbryta through it.
From left to right: Hajar, Khadeejah, Amatullah, and Mapillar Dahn. (Source: Sickle Cell Disease News)
According to Dahn, today, less than 3 months after starting on Oxbryta, Hajar is thriving academically, something she has struggled with all her life.
Sickle cell disease affects approximately 100,000 Americans—with the vast majority of those impacted being part of minority communities particularly those of African descent. The inherited, life-long disease causes “sickle-shaped” red blood cells that can block blood flow, leading to pain, organ damage, infection, and other serious complications. About 1 in 365 Black or African American babies are born with sickle cell disease, and 1 in 13 are born with sickle cell trait. An individual with sickle cell trait carries or has inherited a copy of the sickle cell gene, which is what causes sickle cell disease; while they themselves never develop sickle cell disease, they can pass the gene on to their children.
At the heart of GBT’s success in its quest to effectively treat and one day cure sickle cell disease is the importance it places on partnering with sickle cell community advocates—like Dahn, who founded MTS (My Three Sicklers) Sickle Cell Foundation, which raises awareness of the disease and supports families with loved ones impacted by it.
Good Day BIO spoke with Dr. Ted Love, GBT’s President and CEO and a BIO Board member, to better understand the work the company is doing to advance equity in access to treatment for sickle cell disease and in the biotechnology sector.
Good Day BIO (GDB): Within the context of Black History Month, how do you feel about GBT’s work given that sickle cell disease disproportionately affects members of the Black community?
Dr. Ted Love, President & CEO, Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT)
Dr. Ted Love: Sickle cell disease epitomizes healthcare inequity. It’s a genetic disease. It resides primarily in African Americans because the disease was primarily in areas where malaria was endemic. And of course, there’s no malaria in the U.S. The way the gene got into the U.S. is through slave importation from areas where malaria was endemic. We’ve had gene pool mixing, so there are white people with sickle cell disease—but it’s still largely in the Black community.
My ancestors were slaves, and then after slavery, they weren’t given anything to say, “We’ve abused you for hundreds of years.” In fact, they were just given more abuse, right? So, when I look at people out there in the world with diseases, sickle cell is the epitome of disparity. Every disparity—from their skin color to where they live—that you can imagine has impacted these patients. And then the lack of investment in trying to fix their disease is another disparity. However, it’s been incredibly rewarding to work on this problem.
GDB: Have you seen the industry change in terms of its efforts to include more people with diverse perspectives, diverse life experiences, and backgrounds from a recruiting standpoint? Does the industry look more like the country and the patients that it serves? What more needs to be done?
Dr. Ted Love: Progress has been slow. One of the things that’s very different is people are talking about this now.
When I went to Genentech in 1992, I think they knew that they were getting an African American, Ivy League-trained cardiologist, and I think they were happy about the African American part. But there wasn’t much talk about it—it kind of just happened.
Now, there is an active effort to try to do better, but we get caught up a lot in “the lack of a pipeline,” and I hear this over and over again. When I was building the GBT Board, I was very intentional about having African Americans on the board with 95% of our market in the U.S. being people of color. I wanted a great board—no doubt about that—but I did want some African American representation on it. But if I go out and [ask], “How many Black CEOs have there been?”, I’m going to be dealing with a list that includes me and a couple of other people, so it’s a de minimis list.
So, what I decided to do was recruit Deval Patrick, former Governor of Massachusetts. Nobody can debate, “Is Deval Patrick smart?” Nobody can debate, “Does he know anything about running a corporation?” Before he became Governor, he was a Fortune 500 C-suite executive, right? But people weren’t [recruiting him], so I said, “Let’s get Deval.” Deval has now become one of the most sought-after board members. So rather than just talk about how there’s no pipeline, I said, “Let’s create a pipeline.” GBT has been intentional about creating a pipeline.
GDB: Back in December, Nasdaq submitted a proposal to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding board diversity. Do you anticipate that the SEC will approve this measure?
Dr. Ted Love: I do. California has a measure that they passed several years ago that focused on gender diversity, and that has been very effective. People are ensuring that they have women on their boards. It’s a little bit unfortunate that we have to mandate this, but the truth is, we mandate a lot of things in our society. We mandate having car insurance, in certain cases children being vaccinated to be in school. Mandating doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is mandating the wrong thing. If you want to mandate that boards have diversity on them, I’m okay with that—because I actually think it’s going to be better for our society. I’m okay with mandates not only if the intention but the effects of the mandates are good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Ted Love, Mapillar Dahn, and Dr. Helen Torley, CEO of Halozyme and the leader of BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, discussed the importance of diverse leadership in the biotechnology industry and how it is leading it breakthroughs in treating sickle cell disease. Listen to the full podcast here.