Over the course of his father’s four-decade struggle with multiple types of cancer, Serge Messerlian watched — occasionally with sadness but more often with awe — as his father reinvented himself multiple times.
For much of his early life, John Messerlian was a professional musician, at one point earning the title of “the Golden Sax of Spain.” Shortly after settling in Canada, John and his wife opened a restaurant business. He then immersed himself in the community and became one of its fiercest advocates, leading or serving on groups ranging from the New Brunswick Human Rights Association to the Committee of Women in New Brunswick. Later, as his illnesses persisted, he taught music.
That resilience left a huge impression on Serge and continues to impact him profoundly some eight months after John finally succumbed to cancer. He does what he does because his father did what he did.
“It’s a real privilege to spend my career in service of people like my father,” Messerlian says. “In large part, I went into healthcare as a way to give other people the same opportunity to reinvent themselves.”
Messerlian grew up and was educated in Canada, and spent his formative professional years working there for Baxter in a variety of roles. Early on, he adopted a philosophical approach very much in line with his father’s live-every-moment outlook.
“I believe in failure and being challenged,” he says. “I’ve tried to put myself in situations where there’s high risk, high ambiguity, high complexity … Nobody bats 1.000. Sometimes failure is the best teacher in life.”
It’s an approach that resonates with his Janssen colleagues. “Serge is willing to take calculated risks and test and learn while innovating,” says VP, sales and marketing, hematology Pearl Pugh. “He is intellectually curious, so he is always thinking, learning, reading, experiencing. And he is also a good person who wants to make a positive impact on the world.”
As a teenager, Messerlian did so via ice cream. His “somewhat rural” area of Canada lacked a go-to parlor, so Messerlian filled an unmet need by opening Eat More Ice Cream. It represented a business opportunity, yes, but also a chance to foster social interaction.
Messerlian clearly relished the dual challenge. “The idea was to create a service and an experience for our customers,” he recalls. “That was the magic of that business: understanding markets and people.”
Messerlian sold Eat More Ice Cream after he entered a master of science program in human genetics at McGill University. He and his family still eat ice cream every night for dessert.
It was when they relocated to the U.S. a decade ago that Messerlian tied together the many threads of his life to date, marrying his challenge-thyself mentality with his interest in serving disparate communities. At Baxalta, Messerlian grew the organization’s fledgling biosimilars business. During his Actelion tenure, he shifted his focus to the rare disease space.
But there may be no truer expression of Messerlian’s overarching ethos than his work in his current role of president, U.S. oncology at Janssen, which he accepted in early 2020. Like every other pharma company with an A-grade presence in oncology, Janssen’s big-picture goal is ultimately to engineer a cure for cancer. What distinguishes the company’s efforts to that end is a simultaneous focus on the emotional arcs of its patients.
“There are organizations that have been fairly brand-focused, and we have successful brands like Imbruvica and Erleada,” Messerlian explains. “But by and large this company has been focused on creating the right plans behind these brands and stretching our thinking into the journey of the patient. To be really successful in oncology you need to be focused on the trials and tribulations of the patient over a continuum.”
His group’s response to that need was the debut earlier this year of Janssen Compass, a personalized program designed to support patients with metastatic prostate cancer and multiple myeloma. Patients treated with Janssen’s Erleada (prostate cancer) and Darzalex and Darzalex Faspro (multiple myeloma) can connect on an ongoing basis with what the company calls Care Navigators, nurses with specific oncology experience. The navigators are trained to answer questions on everything from educational resources to medication access to general coping skills.
The program is a centerpiece of Messerlian’s quest to ensure that Janssen Oncology balances science and empathy. “There’s a lot that healthcare systems need to take on and, invariably, they can’t account for everything. As a result, there are gaps — resources gaps, execution gaps,” he notes.
Compass’ Care Navigators, then, serve as a kind of patient Sherpa throughout the treatment process. “They bring together the resources a patient might need for the challenges or issues they may be facing,” Messerlian continues. “What we’re hoping to do is educate and build self-agency in that patient while supporting them emotionally through the journey.”
As for what distinguishes Janssen Compass from the myriad other patient support programs underwritten by pharma (and, unfortunately, under-used by patients), Messerlian says that it is customizable at scale.
“Many organizations design services like this, but they’re designed to be operationally efficient. In the process, you lose that personalization aspect,” he explains. “What may have made Compass a little different is that we’re such believers in design thinking. We were very thoughtful in the design of this program .… That allows us to create a service model around the individual patient.”
While Compass doesn’t have distinct components that address oncologists treating prostate cancer and multiple myeloma patients, Messerlian hopes that it can help eliminate the communication disconnect that often mars the treatment process.
“When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it’s very destabilizing, naturally,” he says. “Not all patients have the same access to information and the same level of education and the same understanding of treatment options. So sometimes after they engage with healthcare providers, they walk away with a difference of understanding.”
It’s Messerlian’s firm belief that Janssen Compass will serve as a bridge of sorts. “On top of everything else, it can empower patients to have more productive conversations with HCPs around their care. That’s why we believe so strongly in this program.”
As for what comes next, Messerlian promises that his group will always think big. “I don’t know if we’re going to cure cancer in 10 years, but I think we’re getting close to it,” he continues. “The goal is for patients to live the types of lives you and I are living.”