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Accelerating clinical development

Marie-Louise Fjällskog

As Chief Medical Officer (CMO) at Faron Pharmaceuticals Marie-Louise Fjällskog can combine her passion for science and helping people with her fascination for finding solutions to detective stories.

The first thing that attracted Marie-Louise Fjällskog about Faron Pharmaceuticals was the science. She says, “They have had many interesting publications in highly rated journals and a solid rationale to why the drug lead potentially could help many people.”

Faron Pharmaceuticals, founded in 2007 with headquarters in Turku, is a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company that develops drugs that can affect the immune system. Cancer is the main priority area. Marie-Louise, who just joined the company (in January 2022), is part of the management team. She is providing leadership and direction in accelerating the clinical development programs, and primarily the lead drug candidate, bexmarilimab.

“When I also learned that the lead drug had single agent activity, which is very rare among immunotherapies, I was sold on the company.”

Bexmarilimab is a novel anti-Clever-1 humanized antibody that targets Clever-1 positive (Common Lymphatic Endothelial and Vascular Endothelial Receptor 1) tumor associated macrophages (TAMs) in the tumor microenvironment, converting these highly immunosuppressive M2 macrophages to immune stimulating M1 macrophages. The company has demonstrated that bexmarilimab has single agent activity in multiple advanced solid tumors, as well as a favorable safety profile. It is currently being evaluated in Phase I/II trials, both as a monotherapy and in combination. If successful bexmarilimab has the potential to become the first macrophage immune checkpoint therapy.

“When I also learned that the lead drug had single agent activity, which is very rare among immunotherapies, I was sold on the company. If we see single agent activity – what fantastic efficacy can be seen with combinations?!” says Marie-Louise.

A team effort

Besides the fascinating science, Marie-Louise says that she likes the mix of the two cultures (American and European) at the company. She herself is located in Boston, USA, where Faron has established operations and a presence, and the day usually begins with meetings with the clinical team located in Finland. She receives updates on how their studies are progressing and how patients are doing with regards to safety and efficacy.

“I also have investors meetings together with other team members, describing our drugs, the progress and how we differentiate compared to other companies,” she adds.

Right now, a lot of Marie-Louise’s efforts are focused on optimizing the company’s studies regarding design, speeding up enrollment into the studies and interpreting data. “I am also focusing on working in a more team-based manner – to streamline and make the company ready for the US working environment. Other focus areas include designing innovative new studies with combinations of bexmarilimab with other therapies to enhance the efficacy and benefit for patients in indications with high unmet medical need,” she describes.

In her role as CMO she works with colleagues on an individual basis, in smaller groups and in bigger teams, product developments teams, which consist of many different expert groups. “It can be smaller clinical questions including safety and efficacy, but also regulatory questions, investor interactions and strategical decisions,” she says.

“I love to work with experts from different lines of function, and to learn every day.”

Working in teams is also something that she loves about her job. “I love to work with experts from different lines of function, and to learn every day. The science we are working on is very exciting and our hope is to help many cancer patients have a better and longer life. We are passionate about helping people.”

Running studies during COVID-19 has been very challenging however, says Marie-Louise. “It has been difficult to enroll patients since they do not want to spend more time than necessary in a hospital due to the risk of getting infected. We are starting to see an improvement but are not yet back to how it was before the pandemic.”

Fascination for oncology and US experience

Marie-Louise has always had interest in science and helping people, so studying medicine was a given, she says. She studied medicine at Uppsala University and received an MD. She then defended her PhD thesis in oncology in 2002 and was appointed Associate professor (docent) of oncology at Uppsala University in 2008.

After some time doing research she became restless and wanted adventure, so she and her family moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates where she was Head of Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. When returning home in 2011 she took on her first role in the pharmaceutical industry, and began designing clinical development programs within oncology.

“Oncology is a like a big mystery with many unsolved questions, it is a fascinating field.”

“I am intrigued by detective stories and I love trying to find solutions. Oncology is a like a big mystery with many unsolved questions, it is a fascinating field,” says Marie-Louise.

Before joining Faron she was CMO at the US company Sensei Biotherapeutics, where she was responsible for leading clinical and development strategy and operations. She also played a key role in Sensei’s successful 152 million USD IPO, which closed in February 2021. She has also worked as Vice President, Clinical Development at Merus and Infinity Pharmaceuticals, as well as Global Clinical Program Leader at the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research.

“I am also used to working in a very fast paced and competitive American environment when every minute counts and speed is of utmost importance.”

“My previous experience in US-based companies is extremely important for the success of Faron. In all my previous positions I have worked on programs fighting the immune suppressive tumor microenvironment to make existing immunotherapy even better and successful in more patients. Given that Faron is working in the same space, my knowledge and experience from previous roles helps us to design smart and speedy studies. I am also used to working in a very fast paced and competitive American environment when every minute counts and speed is of utmost importance,” says Marie-Louise.

Gaining and sharing knowledge

With over 30 years experience in clinical oncology, translational research, and drug development, Marie-Louise is also contributing with her knowledge on the boards of Swedish biotech company Biovica and Norwegian biopharma company Lytix Biopharma.

“These assignments bring a lot of new knowledge, which is always important in my work as CMO, including networking.”

“I can help evaluate the scientific rigor, practical questions, and clinical development of the devices and drugs. My connections help to identify people for different key roles, and I can advise on the US market,” she says. “These assignments bring a lot of new knowledge, which is always important in my work as CMO, including networking.”

When it comes to the emerging field of oncology, Marie-Louise sees a trend towards combing drugs, attacking the cancer in many different ways to have a higher chance of being successful.

“My focus remains on immunotherapy – in combinations with chemotherapy, small molecules and other immunotherapies. Individualized therapy is also a huge trend – to give the patients the treatment their tumor requires, and nothing more. The right treatment for the right patient, leading to better efficacy and less side effects.”

Within medicine and drug development she says that Finland’s strengths are rigorous science and smart people coming up with smart solutions. “High quality and reliable delivery,” she summarizes.

Photo of Marie-Louise Fjällgren: Rick Bern