Upcoming UK Israel Business speaker Dr Alan Barge talks to JLife’s Evangeline Spachis to about his pharmaceutical career, including developing vital drugs to fight BRCA gene illnesses.
Name: Alan Barge
Lives: Hale, Manchester
Occupation: Consultant chief medical officer
Previous organisations: Amgen, AstraZeneca and ASLAN Pharmaceuticals
Education: Medicine at Oriel College, Oxford and clinical medicine at The Royal London Hospital.
“Israel is definitely on the map. It’s one of my default places to do cancer research now and I have nothing but good things to say about it,” so enthuses Dr Alan Barge, a pharmaceutical consultant and former chief medical officer and the latest guest speaker at the UK Israel Business (North East) breakfast meeting.
And he should know. After qualifying as a doctor in 1982, Derbyshire-born Alan has dedicated his life mainly to the treatment of cancers, specifically leukaemia and bone marrow transplantation, before moving onto the development of drugs to help combat the diseases. With the World Health Organisation warning that there will about 22 million cases of cancer per year within the next two decades, clinical trailing in oncology drug development is as vital as ever.
His work to target cancers in patients with BRCA gene mutations is of a special interest to the shul-attending doctor, who has personal experience of this particular mutation present in Ashkenazi Jewish population. “There are still a lot of patients who have not been screened due to a lack of general information,” Alan warns, “I’m being referred patients from within the community all the time and I am always astonished by how often people have not had the conversation about BRCA and have to go to olaparib, including a close relative.”
Olaparib, also known by its brand name Lynparza, is a treatment drug for ovarian cancer for people who have a change in a BRCA gene. It was developed by AstraZeneca which Alan joined in 1999 after eight years at the American biotechnology company Amegen as European medical director and previously being responsible for the development of treatments for serious conditions such as HIV and other infectious diseases. Joining AstraZeneca to set up a new team based in Alderley Edge in Cheshire, he was given the opportunity to oversee a large team in research and development. It was there that a new experimental drug developed down south caught his attention: “I found a very interesting company in Cambridge which had the drug [olaparib] that targeted patients with BRCA mutations, and so being Jewish I was very interested. We eventually acquired the whole company and immediately set about developing it with a team and the first thing I did was jump on a plane to Israel.”
This was Alan’s first experience of organising medical research in Israel, despite being a frequent visitor to the country: “We set up a whole series of trials in Israel and I formed very close relationships with groups at Sheba hospital in Tel Aviv and Hassadah in Jerusalem and did some very good clinical trials with the Israeli population.” This intensive research resulted in Alan visiting Israel on a weekly basis, and meant that he became extremely familiar with the good (and the bad) processes in the health system of the country. So much so, that he found himself in a “surreal” meeting at the Knesset with the former Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman to discuss approving the drug early to help address the country’s prevalence of BRCA-mutant illnesses such as ovarian, prostate, colon and oesophageal cancer. The drug is now approved in Israel, but they did not succeed in speeding up the process as hoped. “The Israeli government tends to follow the US and since at that stage it was not approved in the States, they were nervous about approving it until such time.” Nevertheless, Alan recalls his time in the region fondly, marking it as a “great experience”.
Alan’s work in clinical exploration has taken him around the world, and at the time of interviewing he had just returned from the Netherlands as part of his new role as a consultant chief medical officer for a number of smaller biotech companies. A year and a half ago, he made the decision to step down from his position as chief medical officer at the biopharmaceutical company he helped to co-found – ASLAN Pharmaceuticals – which saw him focus this time on Asia-prevalent cancers in Singapore, Japan and China. Well-established for six years and recently launched on the Taiwan stock exchange, it seemed a good time for another new challenge.
Recently married to Dena and settled in Hale, south Manchester, the decision to cease stepping on long-distance flights to Asia was an easy one: “I was getting married to my lovely wife and I didn’t want to be in Singapore when she was here. Almost every other week I would be somewhere in Asia or in the States and I am happy to say that I am not doing that so much now.”
Alan will be speaking at the UK Israel Business (North East) breakfast meeting at Weetwood Hall on 11th April.