Ashley Birkett left the private sector for the Malaria Vaccine Initiative at PATH.
Ashley Birkett’s career in vaccine development includes stints in both the private and public sectors
Ashley Birkett was a 14-year-old growing up just north of Birmingham in the United Kingdom when he chose the course of study that would define much of his life.
“From a pretty early age I wanted to apply science to a cause,” says Ashley, who after a decade-long career in private industry joined PATH in 2008 as director of preclinical research and development for the Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI). “I knew very early on that I wasn’t motivated only by discovery, and publishing papers, and that sort of academic career. I was much more interested in the application of science to a medical intervention.”
Ashley’s tenure has coincided with a particularly exciting time at MVI. The initiative’s leading vaccine candidate, GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals’ RTS,S, is now in final testing. And Ashley and his colleagues have been working to realign MVI’s research and development strategy toward an ambitious long-term goal: the elimination and eradication of malaria.
Ashley spoke to Kathleen Donnelly, an editor at PATH, about his work, the ups and downs of the nonprofit sector, and balancing a busy career with being the father of a toddler named Alexandra.
It must be an exciting time to be at MVI. What’s your life been like recently?
It has been a little crazy, at least until very recently. My wife and I had our first child less than five months after I joined PATH; so marrying fatherhood, relocation from Boston to Bethesda, and a new job that required a lot of hiring, travel, and initiation of new partnerships was challenging. However, I feel that the hard work and planning of the past couple of years is really starting to pay off now, not just in my unit, but across the entire MVI team. I believe that we are now very well positioned to succeed.
What’s it like to be working at MVI as the RTS,S vaccine candidate goes through final testing?
It really is exciting, and it’s one of the things that drew me to MVI. I think the success that we have with RTS,S is a tremendous achievement. It sets the stage for what we need to do at MVI over the next few years. A partially effective vaccine is a great achievement (RTS,S demonstrated 53 percent effectiveness in earlier testing), but we need more.
I think there are two things that have driven our renewed and revised strategy. The first one is integrating the success and the knowledge that we’ve gained from RTS,S into the next generation of vaccines. If we can develop a vaccine that’s 50 percent effective, there’s really no reason that we can’t go to 80 or 90 percent.
The second thing is our renewed focus on elimination and potential eradication of malaria. There are tools available to control malaria today. But we still have 900,000 deaths from malaria each year, most of those young children in Africa. So, we don’t have all the tools we need. We think that vaccines that can prevent clinical disease are one of the tools, but we also need to develop vaccines that can prevent transmission of the parasite (that causes malaria) and break the cycle.
What’s different about your work now from your work at biotech companies?
Rather than getting bogged down in the nuts and bolts of specific projects, my current position is really about building and maintaining the portfolio and interacting with funders, donors, and partners. It’s a much more strategic level.
The downside is you don’t have so much day-to-day, nitty-gritty work on the project. You’re not walking in and out of the labs and chatting with the people actually doing the work. But that’s replaced by a more strategic vision for developing malaria vaccines. What I like about our approach is you’re not constrained by a certain technique or a platform that a company has. You have a goal and a mission, and your job is to seek out the technology that you need to do that job.
Are there any successes in your career that you’ve found especially satisfying?
I’ve enjoyed starting programs from a very early phase, from a point of interacting with academic experts to establish new programs in a commercial environment and advancing them to clinical trials. Several of these were initiated with grants from NIH (National Institutes of Health) and PATH. In my first company, I was involved in raising money from individual investors and venture capitalists, too.
Did you enjoy that part of it?
Yeah, I did. It was a challenge, but very rewarding. And it gives me a greater appreciation for the funders we have today in the Gates Foundation. It’s not just the magnitude of the investment that I appreciate so much, but the unwavering commitment that our donors share with us for developing effective malaria vaccines. Developing the vaccines we need to prevent and ultimately eradicate malaria is not a venture for those with short-term investment horizons.
That’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward a nonprofit, because some interactions in the private sector can be quite challenging and the best science doesn’t always prevail. It’s all driven by financial returns, whereas our metric is saving lives of children in Africa. So, when you look at your metric for success, making investors rich or saving lives in Africa, it’s pretty easy to see which one is more attractive.