Motivation isn’t an issue for Virginia Lazala. As VP and legal head of oncology for the Latin America and Canadian regions as well as the legal head of oncology global HR at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Lazala helps utilize the legal arm of the global company to aid patients battling even the severest of diseases.
From Parkinson’s to metastatic breast cancer to sickle cell disease to pediatric leukemia, Novartis is on the front lines of some of the most progressive treatment options in pharmaceuticals. “This is what keeps you coming to work every day; everyone here is helping to bring treatments to market that help patients and save lives. It makes coming to work easy,” Lazala says.
The VP says that her twenty-plus years at Novartis has offered a litany of high points, one of the most notable being the company’s groundbreaking partnership with the University of Pennsylvania—that partnership ultimately resulted in the first-ever CAR T-cell (chimeric antigen receptor T) therapy, and the first such therapy to go to market. The associated studies achieved breakthroughs with several chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients who were treated with personalized versions of their own immune cells. “It’s the ultimate personalized medicine therapy because they’re taking your cells, processing them in our plant, and injecting them back into you,” Lazala explains.
Challenges Are Also Reminders
One of the challenges for Novaratis has been meeting the demand for its CAR T-cell therapy, but the company is working quickly to resolve this issue. “We only have one plant, our Morristown, New Jersey, site, doing this work right now, so meeting demand has been a challenge,” the VP says.
It isn’t the only challenge Lazala has had to face down in her tenure. Last year, the legal head had just finished overseeing a jury trial that Novartis ultimately lost. “It’s a case for which I still have some post-traumatic stress,” Lazala says frankly. “It was a nightmare. Sometimes you just don’t win.”
The decision came down the same day of the Novartis Global Oncology Leadership Forum where, in her dual role, Lazala was kept extraordinarily busy. While it may have initially seemed like the worst possible time to get the news, something else happened that day to change her perspective.
“I hadn’t really been able to focus at all because of what was going on, but then a patient who had flown in to speak to us got up to talk,” Lazla explains. “This person suffered from sickle cell disease and had been treated with one of our experimental products, which was later approved. This person thanked us for working in a space that seems to be neglected by pharmaceutical companies.”
Especially in areas like Brazil, Colombia, and other South American countries under Lazala’s purview, diseases like sickle cell disease often affect people of color disproportionately. The disease carries painful ramifications in and of itself, and the population it affects can often face difficulties in receiving treatment as well, not just because of access but also because of skepticism.
“It’s a painful disease, but people seeking treatment are often met with hesitancy by healthcare professionals because they think they’re drug addicts,” Lazala says. “We now have this product that can help those most in need.”
After receiving the news on the trial, Lazala was immediately reminded of the work her company was doing to save lives, and it was a message that was received loud and clear by those in attendance. “I’m standing in a room filled with global leaders, and there wasn’t a dry eye to be found,” the VP recalls.
Enabling Treatments Worldwide
Lazala says her legal teams are regularly reminded of the broader import of their work. “I try to instill in my team the idea that we are supposed to be business enablers,” the VP says. “The question we should be asking all of our internal clients is, what do you want to achieve? It may not be exactly how you want to do it, but we will achieve your goal.”
The VP explains that lawyers can sometimes be thorough to a fault, and that learning to push through is an absolutely necessity if you want to be on her team. “We learn that sometimes you have to be comfortable with 80 percent and just go with it,” Lazala says. “We aren’t as large a legal department as many of our competitors, so we need to be comfortable with getting the information we need to make an informed decision and not fall prey to analysis paralysis.”
And the legal team is certainly enabling at a high speed. In the first week of May 2020, Novartis was granted accelerated approval by the USFDA for a novel treatment for adults with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer. It’s yet another major victory that has occured during Lazala’s tenure, and she’ll be helping to take the treatment to Latin America and Canada—no motivation required.
Stretching Into a New Role
Virginia Lazala has been enabling new treatments for patients for over twenty years at Novartis, but the lawyer has found new flexibility in opening a Kika Stretch Studio franchise in the Atlanta area. The dance-based stretch method is for everyone from athletes to the elderly, she says, and the forty-five-minute, one-on-one coaching sessions match stress relief with profound health benefits.
“My husband and I were both clients before we were owners, and we thought this would be great to bring to Atlanta, where it didn’t previously exist,” Lazala says. The studio opened in October and had already turned a profit by February (a relatively unheard-of proposition for any small business).
The COVID-19 outbreak left little time for celebration, but when the coast is clear, they’ll be back to the mats. “We’re hoping once we get back to it that more people can experience it and see the benefits immediately like we did,” Lazala says.