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Sanjeev Luther of Rafael Pharmaceuticals: “Listen”

Listen: Listening is a challenging task that I am continuously working on. When you want to make a change, waiting for an overall consensus can paralyze you from moving to the next step. However, leaving your team and their ideas behind for swift results also jeopardizes both the journey and outcome. It is tempting to […]

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Listen: Listening is a challenging task that I am continuously working on. When you want to make a change, waiting for an overall consensus can paralyze you from moving to the next step. However, leaving your team and their ideas behind for swift results also jeopardizes both the journey and outcome. It is tempting to make decisions faster in order to expedite change. However, if you listen to those around you, the journey may be slower but the fruits of it are much sweeter.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sanjeev Luther.

Mr. Luther has more than 30 years of experience in healthcare, specialty pharma and biopharma industry segments in strategy, business development, alliances, commercialization and operations. Under his leadership, Rafael has made significant progress towards strategy, business portfolio, clinical development (leading to two Phase III programs and several Orphan Designations) and has enhanced its discovery portfolio.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I first started my career in consulting and became instantly interested in pharmaceuticals, and had this same reaction when I was introduced to Rafael Pharmaceuticals. As soon as I looked at the unique approach to treating cancer through cancer metabolism, and the development of the drug, CPI-613® (devimistat), I knew it was different. I have more than 25 years of experience in healthcare and have not seen anything like it.

Previously, I worked for Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis, Bausch and Lomb and GE Healthcare. To me the path to help the most people was to use this previous experience and join a team taking a new approach to cancer treatment. Our mission is to provide hope for patients with rare cancers; as we say in our motto, “To Save a Life is to Save a Universe.”

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Rafael Pharmaceuticals has distinguished itself as a leader in the field of cancer metabolism through the development of its lead molecule, CPI-613® (devimistat), which takes advantage of the unique nature of cancer cell metabolism by interfering with the supply of crucial nutrients to cancer cells in order to induce cell death. In layman’s terms, this kills the source from which cancer cells obtain their energy, and hinders cancer growth to keep it from spreading.

We currently have pivotal Phase 3 trials for pancreatic cancer and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Phase 2 for Burkitt’s lymphoma, and more than a dozen other trials. We recently completed enrollment and are 17 months ahead of schedule in our Phase 3 pancreatic cancer trial. We worked alongside the Food and Drug administration, and leaned on all of our principal investigators, staff and community to provide the best treatment and clinical trial process for our patients. These trials and data, coupled with our five orphan drug designations, allow us to be the furthest along in the field of cancer metabolism.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Cornerstone Pharmaceuticals’ journey to Rafael Pharmaceuticals is an experience I will never forget. Originally when the company was Cornerstone, I began as chief business officer. Before I started the position, I was told the company had a certain amount of money and on day one I realized we were behind. At first, I thought it was a joke or some kind of misunderstanding. I soon became aware that what I thought was fiction was reality.

Thankfully, serial entrepreneur Howard Jonas realized our mission and wanted to invest in it. He made a significant personal investment in the company, saving us from bankruptcy. While I find the story is amusing now, I will never forget the lesson: If things are meant to be, they will find a way to work out.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

There are three people in my life that always stand out when asked this question.

First and foremost, my wife. She has provided continued support throughout my career, even if it called for us to move across countries. As a physician she understood my mission to disrupt the world of cancer, so much that she even put her own career on hold so I could pursue this while she raised our three beautiful and successful daughters. Without my wife, I would not be in this position.

My father was always my number one supporter in any and all things that I wanted to do. His advice still guides me today, reminding me that staying humble will allow me to better understand others. When you take the time to look at how fortunate you are, you stop questioning why someone has more than you or is further along.

Milton Goggans, President of Westwood Squibb will always be dear to me. When I met him in 1995, I attributed much of the changes in my life and career to him. To date he is still my mentor and we speak with one another frequently. “Let the data speak for itself,” were powerful words he once said to me. Understanding what he meant had a major impact on my career. Milton understands that I am an analytical person and always knows how to break things down just for me.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption dances a fine line between good and bad. Technology is a disruption that has withstood the test of time. It has bled into virtually every industry, and the pharmaceutical industry is no exception. Through technology, we are able to enhance our access and insights around patient data like never before. The patient in many cases has been empowered to make decisions along with their caregiver, around their treatment — before this was on the caregiver alone.

Innovation is a positive disruptor that generates rapid movement in the pharmaceutical industry. The industry has constantly innovated for the last 30 years and has withstood these changes. For example, oncology led to radiology, which led to chemotherapy, then to immunotherapy drugs, and now finally to drugs like ours, CPI-613® which uses cancer metabolism. All of the treatments are different, but in clinical practices each have the ability to help patients. What is unique is that the preclinical model to determine the efficacy of these drugs is completely different. You have to reinvent the wheel and constantly innovate to convince and advocate on why a particular treatment is different and of value to patients.

Disruption can become a ‘not so positive’ thing when it hinders patient care. With the introduction of technology and the constant innovation, there is a risk that things can become mixed up or overwhelming. It is similar to the “too many cooks in the kitchen” idiom. Additional protocols and requirements brought on in the name of innovation can sometimes result in the patient not receiving the best care possible.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Persistence: When I joined Rafael Pharmaceuticals, it was almost humorous how little money was available for such a large mission. This mission became an obligation, pushing us to seek out funds. This was no small feat. In order to make Rafael successful, or any company for that matter, it takes persistence. You can’t take things personal and you must never accept a ‘no.’ If someone said ‘no’ to our initiatives or fundraising, we would come back again and again. Without persistence, Rafael would not be where it is today. From our principal investigators, to our staff and most definitely our patients, persistence has been the key ingredient.

Don’t always look up: My father always provided sound advice that I continue to use today. In the business world we have a poor tendency to look up when it comes to promotions, raises and where others stand. Every once in a while, look down, and realize you are very fortunate to be where you are. When you look up, you miss out on the blessings you have in front of you and how far you have come.

Listen: Listening is a challenging task that I am continuously working on. When you want to make a change, waiting for an overall consensus can paralyze you from moving to the next step. However, leaving your team and their ideas behind for swift results also jeopardizes both the journey and outcome. It is tempting to make decisions faster in order to expedite change. However, if you listen to those around you, the journey may be slower but the fruits of it are much sweeter.

In all, persist, look down and listen.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

The route for each organization, business and person is different. Understanding who and where you are in your path is essential to generating good, qualified leads. At this time, acquiring partnerships and investors is where we are in our journey.

A few years ago, we were looking for a licensing partner in Japan. Everyone who was anyone gave us a laundry list of reasons why we would not be able to succeed — convincing and securing an investor is not always straightforward. After two trips to Japan, and compiling detailed case after case, in June of 2019 we signed a deal with the largest pharmaceutical company in Japan, Ono Pharmaceutical. The partnership gave us a platform for validation and has propelled us forward to where we are today.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We will be shaking things up by pushing ourselves even harder, while still staying true to our mission. I have a saying, “If another company can do a task in 12 months, Rafael Pharmaceuticals will do it in six.” This mentality, drive and passion is how we attack each day. Because our patients do not have a lot of time, we must make the most of ours.

We completed the enrollment for our Phase 3 pancreatic clinical trial ahead of schedule by being aggressive, passionate and advocates for patients. It is all work ethic. Monday through Sunday, country by country, site by site — falling behind is not an option. We control what we can and resolve to fight to the end. This is disruption from a clinical point of view.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Yes, a book called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s All Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson always sits on my desk. It has deeply impacted my thinking to the point where small things truly no longer bother me.

The biggest takeaway for me personally is that if I get into the weeds it takes away from other things. I refuse to focus on any “small stuff” in place of the big picture of what we are trying to accomplish in the world of hard-to-treat cancers.

Both personally and professionally, if you focus on the small stuff, you will never be successful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I think about life, I think about the balance of positives and negatives. My favorite quote has always been “Your competitors are not your enemies.” Iron sharpens iron, and that is my outlook on life. When you aim for the same goal as others, you can achieve and understand more together than apart.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

There are people in need everywhere, from the children in Yemen and Syria, to cancer patients, to people right here in the United States who can’t afford many of the things that we take for granted. I want to inspire a movement of helping people who are less fortunate. If we each began to practice the habit of looking out for others, even one degree more than we currently do, I believe we could change the world.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can follow Rafael Pharmaceuticals on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

They can also follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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