Dr. Saba Sile: “You must put the patient first”

Make sure to give back and support other women and your communities. — I think it is important to give back to our communities. Until recently (due to COVID-19), I volunteered my time in a clinic and mentored younger students interested in treatment or research as a career. I was fortunate to have many mentors throughout my […]

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Make sure to give back and support other women and your communities. — I think it is important to give back to our communities. Until recently (due to COVID-19), I volunteered my time in a clinic and mentored younger students interested in treatment or research as a career. I was fortunate to have many mentors throughout my life and want to provide others with guidance and support to achieve their dreams.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Saba Sile, executive director, clinical development, Horizon Therapeutics.

Sile, M.D. is an executive director of clinical development at Horizon Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company focused on researching, developing and commercializing treatment that address critical unmet needs for people impacted by rare and rheumatic diseases. Prior to Horizon, Dr. Sile worked at both large and small companies, focusing on rare disease spanning from nephrology, metabolic disorders to cardiac diseases. Dr. Sile received her medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University researching nephrology and genetics.

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?

Honestly, I never had an “A-HA” moment where I decided to pursue a career in STEM. However, a pivotal moment came when my father developed complications from long-standing diabetes, and although he was taking medications, he did not seem to improve significantly. My mother was also at a loss as to why he was not getting better — for several years there was no sugar in our household so that my father could get better. Our family was suffering because unlike today, we did not have all the treatment and technology to address a disease such as diabetes. This experience led me to think that we needed better treatment (or cures) so that people did not have to suffer. For years, in my younger days, I would tell myself that I would “make new treatment” to reduce patient suffering. Later, as a high school student, I started volunteering my summers in an organic chemistry lab (Dr. Paul Dowd at University of Pittsburgh) so I could learn how to “design treatment”. This volunteer work turned into an internship and summer work until I graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry.

My interest in science and treatment led me directly to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pa. Medical training, including my nephrology and genetics fellowship at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., helped me develop skills on interacting with patients and their families, allowing me to communicate effectively. My genetics fellowship helped me learn how to critically analyze and interpret research data. More importantly, all of this training made me realize the importance of clinical research and bringing new treatment to patients. With that in mind, I entered the pharmaceutical industry immediately after my training. My most recent appointment is as the executive director in clinical development at Horizon Therapeutics.

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

Getting new treatment approved and to the market is disruptive, especially in rare diseases. At Horizon, I work as part of team that relentlessly and collaboratively works to pursue new options for these patients. We apply our scientific expertise to address challenges while putting the patient in the center of our approach. One of my most disruptive projects was getting TEPEZZA®, the first FDA-approved medication for Thyroid Eye Disease, across the finish line and into the hands of patients. One special moment included hearing patients speak about the impact of TEPEZZA at the FDA advisory committee meeting. It was important to hear the impact this drug had on the lives of patients who had no previous treatment options.

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?

I’ve made several funny mistakes, but I like to think of them as lessons. When I first transitioned from academic treatment to the pharmaceutical industry, I underestimated the power of teamwork and collaboration. It takes a village to get a drug across to the finish line.

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?

I am extremely thankful for my family, whose rich culture and history have motivated me to become who I am today. They raised me to be a strong female and allowed me the privilege to pursue opportunities. I am very grateful for these opportunities and motivated to help others. My siblings are also a source of inspiration. Professionally, my sister, who also happens to be a physician, is oftentimes the person I turn to when I need to bounce an idea off.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of excellent, supportive leaders in the clinical development space. At this point in my life, I am working with some of the best in the industry who have been supportive of me and my career in general.

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 in healthcare is good when it adds value for patients, but disruption at times can have unintended consequences and can be costly when patients’ lives are at stake.

The idea of pain being the fifth vital sign and the need to address patients’ pain led to development of opioids, which was considered revolutionary in clinical treatment. However, this disruptive idea has had unintended consequences with the opioid crisis in recent years and the increased use of opioid prescriptions to treat any patients’ pain (acute and chronic). Now, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are reevaluating and trying to understand the data to benefit patients that truly need these medications.

Today, we are witnessing significant disruptions in healthcare delivery via treatment and integrated systems (wearable devices) to collect patient data from their homes. For example, a patient can, with a simple touch of an iPhone in the comfort of a home setting, send EKG data to a cardiologist for a diagnosis of an abnormal heart rhythm.

In clinical research, there currently are disruptions in how we conduct our clinical trials and hopefully, in the long run, these technologies will help us reduce development timelines so we can get effective therapies to patients faster. Several companies are developing artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze large datasets to improve recruitment/enrollment, and on the front end, AI is also being used for molecular target identification and repurposing of medications.

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

  • treatment and research are a humbling career. Keep a curious/persistent mind if you want to succeed.

While working in treatment and research is extremely fulfilling, you must be prepared for disappointments. I have had multiple disappointments, but one that stands out is my work on a treatment for Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, a devasting disease that often leads to early death. It didn’t make it past the first phase of the clinical trial — which was extremely heartbreaking to us, the patients and their families. While this experience disappointed me, it also motivated me to continue in my journey within clinical development to bring new treatment to patients.

  • You must put the patient first.

When there are challenges in treatment and research, at times one can lose sight of the patients’ needs and suffering and become overwhelmed with healthcare system difficulties and clinical trial obstacles. Therefore, I often remind myself that patients, like my father, are waiting and deserve better. This fundamental idea of always thinking about the patients or keeping patients front and center helps me as I navigate protocols and address clinical trial challenges. Until recently, I was involved in clinical treatment as a nephrologist at the University of California San Francisco, which often helped me to not lose sight of patients’ needs.

  • Make sure to give back and support other women and your communities.

I think it is important to give back to our communities. Until recently (due to COVID-19), I volunteered my time in a clinic and mentored younger students interested in treatment or research as a career. I was fortunate to have many mentors throughout my life and want to provide others with guidance and support to achieve their dreams.

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

I am passionate about bringing new treatment to all patients as soon as possible, and this is a life-long motivation that I will continue to purse. In addition, I want to promote diversity in clinical trials. People of color have been drastically underrepresented in the testing of new medications. While there is a lot of mistrust between the healthcare system and communities of color due to years of wrongful, forced testing, I believe that we must educate both patients and providers on the importance of clinical diversity. For example, we need to make clinical trial sites more accessible to people living in diverse communities and engage with them directly to establish trust. Additionally, we must educate physicians on their unconscious bias and the fact that they don’t offer the same education and clinical trial opportunities to all people. Currently, I volunteer with a company that is hoping to use technology to address disparities in clinical trials. My hope is that someday, my community will own their data, be aware of clinical trial opportunities, and participate in studies, especially in diseases that are more prevalent to us.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women in leadership positions face many challenges. However, it is an exciting time to be a woman of color in any industry today because there is a significant focus on nurturing them and bringing them to the table. I sense a genuine effort in balancing the gender and diversity gaps across the board unlike any other time that I have witnessed.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I am an avid reader and am part of a book club where we read one book per month. I have several books that have impacted my thinking, including “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. In addition, I have read all of Dr. Abraham Verghese’s books, whose writing is focused on the patient-physician relationship and how the suffering of patients can impact many aspects, if not all aspects, of one’s life.

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. 🙂

The movement I would inspire would be around trust within the research and healthcare systems. It is a great moment for the pharmaceutical industry as our society is looking to us to find answers on the global COVID-19 crisis. The pharma industry has stepped up to this challenge by working with unprecedent timelines, increased collaboration and significant investments in various resources. I have non-medical friends participating in clinical trials who are trying to understand clinical trials and what it means in addressing this global crisis. This effort could not be done if there was no trust among the various stakeholders. I would like to ensure that this trust also exists among our marginalized populations globally so that they are empowered to engage and help us find cures for many diseases that have yet to be addressed.

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

Growing up and even today, my parents constantly tell us that health (physical and mental) is your wealth. I did not appreciate this idea until I was sitting in the ‘physician chair’ as a nephrologist. Being a renal patient or even chronically ill with suboptimal treatments can limit one from having a fulfilling life. My life’s mission is to contribute, in any way, to decrease people’s suffering so they can live a full life, and it’s immensely rewarding.

How can our readers follow you online?

On LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/saba-s-55338131/

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

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