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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Making History Fighting HPV: A Q&A with Kristin Sherman

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Rodney Cotton
Rodney Cotton

Did you know that Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is so common that nearly all sexually active, unvaccinated men and women get the virus at some point in their lives?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV causes about 37,000 cancers in women and men in the U.S. each year. Cervical cancer is most common among women and oropharyngeal cancers are most common among men. Amazingly, over 90% of those cancers, including almost all cervical cancer, can be prevented by HPV vaccination. HPV testing and treatment make an impact, too.

I recently spoke to my friend and fellow Community Health Network board member Kristin Sherman, who is CEO of Kovina Therapeutics, a company that’s developing new therapies to treat cancers and premalignant infections caused by HPV. We talked about HPV vaccination, new HPV therapies and what it’s like to be a female leader in biotech. I’m sharing the conversation with you here. I hope you learn as much from Kristin as I did!

ROD: It’s essential for people to be aware of HPV, and today people are so much more well informed, but there’s still a lot of misinformation, fear and stigma, and a resistance to HPV vaccination. Why is that?

KRISTIN: The HPV vaccine is a great vaccine. It’s highly effective, but it only works if people are vaccinated before exposure.

We typically vaccinate kids and young teens. That means health care providers need to talk to parents about vaccinating their kids to protect them from a sexually transmitted disease. It can be difficult for parents to think about their children that way.

Then you have the whole religious and cultural angle, which spans the spectrum in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds. Add to that the general trend of vaccine hesitancy — many people believe vaccines are bad for you and can cause disease and side effects. The fact that the vaccine is a multi-shot series — not just a one and done— also represents a challenge.

Vaccination was an easy decision for me. I work in drug development. I’ve looked at the data. I’ve seen that the vaccine is grounded in science. It has been through all the necessary safety studies, and it’s been on the market since 2006.

But many individuals don’t have that background. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the impact of vaccines, and until you can combat that misinformation, you’ll have a part of the population that’s not going to take the vaccine.

How did you approach HPV vaccination with your kids? We approached it like any other vaccine — polio, MMR and other vaccines we take as part of a mandate for our kids to go to school and be around other kids. I told my kids, “It’s a wonderful vaccine that can prevent some bad diseases, including cancer, and we’re lucky that we can take this vaccine now and eliminate that risk for you down the road.”

What are some things you’re doing at Kovina Therapeutics to address awareness and reduce the stigma? We deliver a message about the effectiveness and the safety of the HPV vaccine on every platform we use — our website, speaking opportunities, expert panels. The message is also part of all our pitch decks and conversations with potential investors. It’s a very simple message: The HPV vaccine is safe, it’s effective and it can help prevent cancer.

At Kovina, you’re finding new ways to treat HPV. Tell us about your work. We focus on the part of the population that’s infected with HPV. Perhaps they didn’t get vaccinated in time or they chose not to get vaccinated, but the bottom line is: Now they’re infected and they’re asking, “What are my treatment options?”

Today, for premalignant infections of the cervix, the only options involve removal of the infected tissue via surgical intervention: cryotherapy, LEEP or ablation. The procedures are highly effective; they just have side effects and risks. For example, scarring of the cervix from removal of tissue during a LEEP procedure can cause a woman to have trouble getting pregnant or lead to a preterm birth or a low-birth-weight baby.

And, because HPV is a viral infection, even after infected tissue is removed, the virus may recur and ultimately progress. We just don’t know which cases will advance.

Can you talk about the therapy you’re developing? Is it approved? Not yet. As you know, drug development is a long process, and the biotech financing markets have been challenging over the past few years.  In addition, not as much funding goes into developing therapeutics for women’s conditions, and HPV disproportionately impacts women with premalignant infections and cancers.

But HPV also affects men. How do you tackle that issue? You’re absolutely right. In fact, a lot of folks don’t talk about or have awareness that HPV impacts men just as much as women. That’s because, when you talk about the impact of HPV, the conversation easily centers around women and cervical infections because of the large numbers of women who are affected globally.

But HPV absolutely impacts men. Head, neck, oropharyngeal and anal infections and cancers disproportionately affect men and individuals with weakened immune systems. Men who are affected with HIV will often have a coinfection with HPV.

You’re taking a unique approach at Kovina. What are you doing and why is it so special? What we’re doing is special because our science has the potential to treat HPV-related cancers, as well as premalignant infections, which include cervical infections before they become cancerous. We’re working in both spaces.

Although there’s lots happening in terms of oncology to treat cervical cancer, there’s not much happening in the premalignant infection stage. Part of the reason for that is because of the treatments I described earlier. They work, but they don’t work perfectly.

Doctors tell women who are infected with HPV to either go home and watch and wait or, if the infection has advanced, they are told that the only option is to remove the infected tissue. They also tell patients that there are side effects that may affect fertility. I believe we need to do better for women by a more therapeutic treatment option. For example, we’re working on a topical treatment — a cream, gel or suppository that would treat localized infections rather than having to remove the infected tissue.

Let’s shift gears and talk about your career. How did you find out about Kovina? I received a phone call from a former CEO who I had worked with at Marcadia Biotech and Calibrium who was aware of the science and thought I might be interested. The folks at Kovina also thought it would be ideal for a female to lead the charge. After the phone call, I did my due diligence, and I agreed. The science was interesting and a female at the helm is exactly what Kovina needs.

You’ve been leading Kovina for three years now. What thoughts do you have on the value of female leadership? I do believe women are uniquely positioned to champion the development of treatments for conditions that disproportionately impact women. I bring a unique and credible voice as someone who understands the need and can advocate more effectively for patients and the potential impact of a therapeutic treatment.

I’m interested in how you got started. Can you take me back to when you were a six-year-old girl? What was it like growing up? I come from a traditional Midwestern family. Mom stayed home, Dad worked as a marketing executive for John Deere, and we had four kids in the family. In some ways it was an everyday upbringing.

I was always intrigued by the business world and what my dad did. I was just mesmerized by it! So, when I started looking at college, I said, “Okay, I’m going to get a business degree.” I went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas my freshman year. But when I got there, I discovered that most of the women were not particularly interested in business.  Of course, this was many years ago.

I transferred to DePauw University because they had a Management Fellow Program where I could do an internship one semester and work. My junior year, I interned at Eli Lilly and Company. That was my first foray into drug development. After graduation, I worked at Lilly for a few years before the company sent me back to school for an MBA.

Did you know you wanted to be a CEO someday? I knew I wanted to be in business. And then, as often happens, I got a little taste of responsibility and thought, “Well, I want a bigger job — and a bigger one.” I started to see myself in larger roles with more responsibility.

You have an interesting background. How did it set you up for success? The beauty of my background is I’ve had a wonderful Big Pharma foundation, then I got to work in a midsize medical device biotech company, Guidant Corporation, when it was spun out of Lilly. Because it was a smaller organization, I had bigger responsibilities. When Guidant was sold, I was offered the opportunity to work in a biotech startup.

Working for small and midsize companies has been a wonderful opportunity to leverage everything I’ve learned in a big company to help me focus on what really matters. For example, at Kovina, because we have limited resources, we focus on the 80/20 rule. What do we absolutely have to get done? What data is critical to advance our science? We work on the 80% and let the other 20% go.

What advice would you give your younger self? Take more risks earlier in your career. Get into smaller environments sooner. (Those probably would have been a better fit for me.) Take a step out of the corporate world. It’s just as exciting, and the risks — and rewards — may be greater.

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