Why 2021 is the year for R&D progress

By Howard Mayer, M.D. – Executive Vice President, Head of Research and Development


2020 was not the year we all expected – the COVID-19 pandemic has made a huge impact on society and of course our healthcare services worldwide. Across the medical community it has also delayed events, pushed congresses to be held virtually, re-balanced and significantly expedited priorities. However, as I reflect on my first year at Ipsen, it’s clear that although the past 12 months have been unusual, I also see power in how this intensely virtual world has changed our global clinical community.

The R&D sector’s mission and ambition has never been clearer, and armed with new ways to overcome present-day challenges, we are starting to see a real turning point in progress – especially inspired by the rare diseases community.

The rare disease community has always been resourceful, where out of necessity, people found ways to connect virtually, given that it is often very difficult to find other people living with the condition, affected families, or healthcare experts just around your corner. In addition, the current landscape has amplified the urgency and need for  more progress, especially when it comes to R&D as with an estimated 400 million people worldwide affected by one of 6000-8000 rare diseases, there are only a few hundred targeted treatments.1 The IRDiRC Conference and RE(ACT) Congress2, that will take place virtually this week, is another opportunity for the community to build on this experience and propel forward in 2021. This online event is focused on research around rare and orphan diseases and is organized in partnership with the European Alliance of Patient Organizations (EURODIS)3 and Rare Diseases International (RDI)4.

It is of interest to Ipsen not only because it focuses on rare and orphan diseases, but it also directly involves people living with rare diseases and patient organizations, which is a key priority and guiding principle for the company when it comes to driving drug development and clinical trials. This includes patients who might not have been able to travel to a physical event due to their condition, meaning that the virtual setting is actually allowing for more participation and knowledge exchange.

Sharing information differently and more broadly to push progress

The way the IRDiRC Conference and RE(ACT) Congress (similar to other conferences in 2020) has adapted its program is another great example of how the clinical community has found new ways to share information both differently and more broadly to push progress – and one that truly inspires me and my colleagues to uphold innovation and development. We realize now more than ever that we can still learn and develop insights through virtual connections, and that it is not about adapting to our new world to substitute face-to-face connections and the live congress experience, but actually leveraging the virtual exchange to its fullest effect.

At Ipsen, we’ve made similar adjustments internally to push our limits. Not being able to meet at congresses or in other venues in person has meant we’ve had to evolve to find new methods of expanding knowledge to drive innovation and follow the unknown. A good example of this is our work in fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) where sharing information in a different way internally helps us continue pioneer in the space and find solutions that were previously unavailable.

Forming connections virtually has made them stronger than they might have been face-to-face

Although more than half my time at Ipsen has been in the virtual world, and I miss the ability to sit in a room and share ideas, this has not stopped our progress. I believe that we have formed stronger connections with our colleagues, communities and partners, including the rare disease community, than we may have done face-to-face.

This experience has encouraged us to not take our foot off the pedal when it comes to accelerating research and development across all three of our therapeutic areas of focus: oncology, neuroscience and rare disease. We have seen that we can still involve patients in our clinical trials and at the forefront of our R&D process, not in spite of having to form connections virtually, but because of it. By tailoring communication with patients and colleagues we have achieved objectives virtually and found new ways to continue being pioneers in areas of unmet clinical need.

The year ahead

In 2020 we have had to pressure test how we work. We have also learned to balance priorities, with health being of the utmost importance, while pushing new innovations forward. These lessons will only enhance and improve our success across R&D in 2021. It’s a true privilege to work at the cutting edge of healthcare and I’m excited for the year ahead to continue pushing innovations even further for those with unique and unmet needs.

In particular, the launch of Ipsen’s new Group strategy reinforces the role of R&D, ensuring it remains a top strategic priority and that we equip our teams with the right resources to continue to develop existing assets, as well as bolstering our portfolio through external innovation.

As Albert Einstein once said, ‘The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. 2020 has been a year of questions, but now we have mastered some of the answers around how to work in this new world, the R&D sector is only going to improve by diving into the much-needed answers around new therapeutic options.


  1. The Lancet, 2020, Rare Diseases need sustainable options, The Lancet, vol.395, no.10225, pp.659-660.
  2. European Reference Network, 2020, IRDiRC Conference and RE(ACT) Congress 2021, European Reference Network, viewed 6 January 2021, < https://ern-euro-nmd.eu/event/irdirc-conference-and%E2%80%AFreact-congress-2021/>.
  3. Eurordis, 2020, The Voice of Rare Disease Patients in Europe, Eurordis, viewed 6 January 2021, < https://www.eurordis.org/>.
  4. Rare Diseases International, 2020, Who Are We, Rare Diseases International, viewed 6 January 2021, < https://www.rarediseasesinternational.org/what-is-rdi/>.
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