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Heidy M. Abreu: Sarepta Therapeutics Inc.
Founded in 1980, Sarepta Therapeutics Inc. (Sarepta) is a medical research and drug development company focused on designing Ribonucleic Acid (RNA)- targeted therapeutics to help treat rare, infectious and other diseases using its RNA-based technologies.
Sarepta has developed product candidates designed to impact protein production associated with various diseases through the use of its phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer (PMO) chemistries. Sarepta’s preclinical research and clinical trials have included the use of PMOs designed to increase or decrease protein production to target Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), influenza, Ebola, Marburg and multidrug-resistant bacterial infections.
While the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company has yet to obtain regulatory approval to commercialize any of its product candidates, it is currently waiting for a United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision for the first-ever new drug application filing it has made with the FDA. Bringing a new drug to market is a long and arduous process requiring patience, dedication and a strong legal team that can protect the company’s interests and meet vital regulatory and other milestones.
At Sarepta, senior corporate counsel Heidy Abreu uses her expertise in securities regulation, compliance, commercial and corporate law in the company’s efforts to position itself for a potential commercialization. A graduate of Cornell Law School, Abreu has been with Sarepta since 2013 where she enjoys working under her legal mentor, general counsel Ty Howton.
Leaving the lab
Abreu’s journey into the world of corporate counsel began when she was a senior at Dartmouth College. After slaving over her honors thesis in psychology for two semesters, Abreu had an abrupt realization: while she loved the analytical aspect of research and problem-solving, she didn’t want to spend large portions of her professional life doing research alone in a lab setting.
“So a little late in the game I decided I wanted to do something else and needed time to figure out what that was,” she says. “I ended up applying for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching [JET] program.” Abreu taught English in Japan to students young and old, including a team of Tokyo business executives who wanted to brush up on the language.
One of the executives in her English class, an attorney, stopped to speak with her after class. “You think, teach and talk like a lawyer.” he told Abreu. It reminded Abreu of her high school job working for a lawyer who handled end-of-life issues. Abreu enjoyed her work in high school with the attorney and recalled her last day on the job being encouraged by the attorney to one day explore going into the legal field.
Enlisting her research skills to look into her new potential career, Abreu interviewed a number of attorneys before eventually realizing that her real calling was to work in the corporate legal realm. Born in the Dominican Republic, Abreu had always been fascinated by international business transactions and thought that a position with a large corporate entity would give her the team atmosphere and intellectual challenges she was looking for in a career, so she opened her own LSAT test site in Japan and applied to law school.
With such a clear goal in mind, Abreu set out to earn not only her J.D., but also her LL.M., a postgraduate law degree that allows students to gain expertise in a specific field of law. In Abreu’s case that field was international and comparative law, a focus that set her on the fast track to a job in the corporate world. While taking on a J.D. and LL.M simultaneously is a tall order for most, Abreu found it well-suited to her own personality.
Before heading off into the corporate in-house counsel world, Abreu spent five years at Ropes & Gray LLP, a Boston-based law firm where she cut her teeth working on myriad corporate issues and specialized in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) matters, corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions and other public company legal issues. At Ropes, she developed her expertise by working on IPOs, equity and debt offerings and advising a core group of public company clients on an ongoing basis. One of her last major deals at Ropes included becoming the senior associate on the largest utility merger in New England.
Abreu notes that working in a fast-paced law firm environment with experts in corporate and public company practice afforded her the opportunity to immerse herself in learning the substantive areas of law she was interested in and the application of it across different projects in various industries including technology, retail and biopharma.
“One thing I noticed early on in my career is that you can’t become a great lawyer without mentors. Understanding the black letter law and its ideal application is generally the easy part. Learning how to partner with business clients in their decision making process is an art that I’ve learned from working closely with senior leading attorneys,” she says.
Abreu’s skills relevant to her role with Sarepta include the ability to partner with business clients to develop a deep understanding of the business, its operations and goals, the financial or other limitations the business faces in operationalizing her legal advice, as well as the short- and long-term impact of her legal advice.
As senior corporate counsel, Abreu also has an understanding of when her role is to make a decision versus providing advice and educating a decision maker on the business side on legal risks. She is also adept at being a partner in the business’s process of conducting risk-benefit analyses that lead to decisions and actions that increase the probability of achieving business goals while minimizing legal risks.
“I have been fortunate to have had dedicated mentors in my years of practice that have been essential in refining these skills, including David Fine, Esq. at Ropes & Gray LLP, who I like to say taught me the core substantive building blocks needed in public company practice; and Ty Howton at Sarepta, who I like to say has taught me the art of engraining myself in the business fabric to become a partner in the business’s strategy development and decision-making process across various departments and operations,” she says.
Also essential to an in-house lawyer’s practice is building a network of experts in different areas of law that one can trust and partner with on company projects. Through her work at both Ropes & Gray and Sarepta, Abreu developed a number of contacts in the business, consulting and legal world that have been key partners in carrying out Sarepta’s business goals and Howton’s legal strategy.
“It was very difficult for me to leave Ropes & Gray LLP, however, it was very important for me to leave at the right time in my career to find a mentor in the world of in-house practice,” says Abreu. “There are many paths to becoming a general counsel but for me, I think it was essential to find someone that I could see myself learning from and working with in-house for several years.”
Finding the perfect fit
Signing on with Sarepta was a bit of a gamble for Abreu. While the company had been around since the ‘80s, there had been a number of changes in management over the years and it had yet to bring a product to market.
“It was high-risk versus me going to some of the other in-house opportunities I had at more established companies, which could provide a more stable environment and job security,” says Abreu. “As I weighed my options, I was really facing the opportunity to work with a general counsel that was building the legal infrastructure for a company working toward a potential commercialization or working with general counsels who were steering large legal departments with established structures and roles.”
In the end, the opportunities for advancement and experience were just too much to pass up. “I decided that for my long-term career goals, it was best for me to be at a place where I could be exposed to the full gamut of legal issues that can come up at a young company that is moving at a fast pace,” she says.
There were three major factors that attracted Abreu to Sarepta. First, Sarepta was in the process of reinventing and rebuilding itself after moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2012 from Oregon and reincorporating in Delaware in 2013. Second was the fact that the corporate counsel position was the second attorney hire after Howton, affording a lot of opportunity for advancement and learning. Lastly and perhaps most importantly was that it became clear to Abreu during her initial interview that Howton was the next mentor she was looking for.
“It was one of those things you can’t quantify, but as I walked away from that interview I knew this was someone I could see myself working with – he seemed like a natural teacher,” she says. Abreu was so comfortable with Howton that she made a bold pronouncement early on in the relationship. “During the interview I basically said ‘Would you be able to commit to helping me grow as an attorney? Because I want your job in 10 years,’” recounts Abreu. “He gave a little smile and said something to the effect of ‘I think we can do that.’”
Sarepta is at a pivotal point in its existence and has managed to be the last company standing in what was touted by a Seeking Alpha article as “Biotech’s Biggest Battle” between BioMarin, PTC Therapeutics and Sarepta. In the race to getting the first product approved for DMD, Abreu has tapped into all her experience as a corporate attorney to help address Sarepta’s legal needs and, under Howton’s guidance, has gained additional expertise in addressing Sarepta’s clinical, commercial and compliance needs as it prepares for a potential commercial launch. Abreu is a member of the company’s promotional review committee, medical review committee and commercial readiness working group, and has led key contract negotiations.
Regardless of whether Sarepta is successful in getting its first product approved, Abreu feels proud of her contributions and lucky to have had an amazing growth experience as an attorney. “It has truly been an honor to work side by side with so many brilliant professionals across various fields in Sarepta’s journey and attempt to bring its first product to market,” she says. The value of her learning experiences at Sarepta has vastly exceeded her expectations.