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Steve Yancey, Respiratory pioneers at GSK House

How curious minds saved a medicine from being left in the lab

Meet Steve Yancey, one of our respiratory pioneers. Steve is a medicine development leader based at GSK Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, US.  In order to overcome the disappointment of early, unsuccessful clinical trials, Steve and his team refined their scientific focus in order to deliver our first biologic respiratory medicine.

After training in biology and physiology, Steve worked in academic research before joining GSK as a clinical monitor in respiratory.  During his career, he has been involved in several major breakthroughs in respiratory medicine, including leading the team who recently developed GSK’s first biologic respiratory medicine.

Steve Yancey talking with a colleague in a meeting room
Medicine development leader Steve Yancey at GSK Research Triangle Park, US

Until there’s a cure and patients no longer struggle to breathe, there’s always a need to find a medicine that’s better than the last.

More than most, he has seen first-hand how GSK has led the way in respiratory medicine research and development.

“For me leadership is about vision, innovation, and a lifetime commitment to do the best for patients and the medical community.  At GSK that is demonstrated through the company’s ability to have established, over more than four decades, a portfolio of medicines for many different types of respiratory diseases, that help people who do struggle to breathe, to breathe better.  And I think that’s in the DNA of GSK.” 

“In addition, GSK also represents curiosity.  It allows someone with a curious mind to continue a level of research, to continue to look for new medicines, and continue to find opportunities to help patients.”

Failure as a stepping stone to success

We’re often told to see failure as a stepping stone to success. Something easier said than done, but this is exactly what Steve and his colleagues did in spotting a glimmer of hope in an early, but disappointing set of clinical trial data.

In the early 2000s, we started clinical trials in a new area of medicine for GSK – biologics for respiratory diseases.  At the time our portfolio of respiratory medicines were administered in inhalers, whereas due to the nature of these biologic medicines, these would need to be administered via an injection.  His team started to research it as a potential medicine for a broad population of patients with a common respiratory condition.  However, as in any area of investigational science, nothing is guaranteed.  These trials proved to be unsuccessful and the team went back to the drawing board.

Regroup and refocus

It is sometimes difficult to regroup and refocus a team when they have experienced a fairly fundamental knock-back, but with a resilient team of scientists, biologists, clinicians and medics, driven by one of our main GSK values of patient-focus, and a belief in science, the team spent many years reviewing the data that we had compiled from these early trials and decided to re-assess the medicine’s viability in a much more focused population of patients.

“These are patients who have maximized the available medicines, but in their own words, continue to experience a lack of control, which means they feel anxious and fearful – they never know when their next respiratory attack may occur, or how severe it may be.”

This has not been an easy journey, it has been a story with failures and challenges.

“We were frustrated and surprised when we saw the initial results, but there was a feeling – both here and in the wider scientific community – that we really shouldn’t give up. There were enough visionaries within GSK who could look beyond the data to see that we really did have a potential medicine on our hands here.”

Never lost focus

Over 15 years, more than 3,000 people were involved in the development of the biologic respiratory medicine with thousands of patients enrolled in numerous clinical trials.  During this time, the team never lost their focus and as Steve says: “Knowing that I am helping patients, in some small way, to breathe better, and to live every breath, makes coming to work pretty easy for me each day.”