Early in her career, anytime Karen Shahinian needed a bit of inspiration to get through a tough day at work, she would walk down a long hallway that connected her company’s corporate offices to its laboratory space. Oversized photos of patients lined the walls. Most of the children looking down at her suffered from Hunter Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, which at the time had no treatment.
Those faces motivated Shahinian as she worked as an associate general counsel to help Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc., and then Shire, develop and launch an enzyme replacement therapy physicians now used to treat the condition.
Almost eighteen years and two acquisitions later, Shahinian is senior vice president of legal at Takeda Pharmaceuticals. She’s stayed in the industry and grown alongside every iteration of the company because of its patient-centered focus. “The work that we do here can help improve the patient experience and hopefully change lives, and I’m grateful that I get to be even a small part of supporting that important work each and every day,” she says.
Shahinian’s father is a physician, and she always thought she would follow in his footsteps. She was pre-med, worked as a clinical research assistant in a prenatal screening laboratory, volunteered on the Brown University Emergency Medical Service during her undergraduate years, and completed a master’s degree in medicine, but ultimately decided to pursue a JD from Boston College. Her interest in biology and science remained strong, though. The young student planned to unite her interests in law and medicine, working as a research assistant in the area of scientific evidence and the law, and seeking out a firm with healthcare expertise.
Upon graduation, she started her legal career at Ropes & Gray, splitting her time between the healthcare and corporate departments, and ultimately focusing her practice within the life sciences group. Although she contributed to a wide variety of projects, she found the most fulfillment while helping smaller up-and-coming companies in the life sciences space, where she had the opportunity to really learn the business and understand the strategic priorities that underpinned her legal work.
The realization led Shahinian to pivot to her first in-house role. She had been at Transkaryotic for just nine months when Shire acquired the company, and was instrumental in helping the specialty pharmaceutical company, known primarily for its neurosciences business, establish itself as a leader in the rare disease space. To do so, she did what she likes best—digging into the business and science, understanding all aspects of therapeutic areas, and keeping all of that front and center alongside her legal analyses.
“It’s not always about a straightforward legal analysis. The challenge in this job, and what keeps it fascinating for me, is that there is so much more to consider: is it right for the company, is it right for the patient community, what precedent are we setting, and can we follow through long-term to ensure we maintain the trust of those we are trying to help?”
As Shire continued to grow, Shahinian took on roles of greater scope and responsibility. She led big transactions to bring more rare disease capabilities in-house and helped put forth the company’s first formal philanthropy program to provide drug access to patients in underdeveloped parts of the world. She continues this commitment to philanthropic efforts, serving on both Takeda’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee and on the board of its Rare Disease Foundation. She is also active at the board level for a nonprofit research foundation in the rare disease space.
In 2016, Shire acquired Baxalta in a $32 billion deal that created a large product portfolio with reach into more than 100 countries. Shahinian led the integration of two large global legal teams following that acquisition. Next, Takeda acquired Shire in 2019. Fortunately, having been through a number of integrations, Shahinian is comfortable managing change and transitions. “When the basic principles hold tight, and everyone around you remains committed to a common goal of working tirelessly for patients, a change in process or policy here or there is just background noise,” she says. “You concentrate on the big picture and get on with the work of the day; that’s what’s important.”
While legislative proposals and other factors will likely impact drug pricing and patient access, the patient-centric approach of the legal group remains steady, allowing them to optimize the support they provide to the business so Takeda can continue its work to help patients.
Although Shahinian has been through several acquisitions and moved offices many times, the original patient photographs from Transkaryotic Therapies are still part of the decor. And while the SVP has expanded her role, the importance of patients for her remains unchanged. Hearing their stories and those of their caregivers, knowing their bravery, inspires her. Shahinian recalled bumping into a visitor not too long ago at Takeda who looked vaguely familiar. It took her only a moment to place him and realize he was one of the children from the photos that inspired her so many years ago. “That was an incredible moment,” she says.