Ashley Birkett, PhD, 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 recently became director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI). “I knew very early on that I wasn’t motivated only by discovery or an academic career. I was much more interested in the application of science to a medical intervention.”
After a decade-long career in industry, Ashley joined PATH in 2008 as director of preclinical research and development for MVI, which drives the development of safe and effective malaria vaccines. His tenure has coincided with a particularly exciting time, as the most clinically advanced vaccine candidate supported by MVI, GlaxoSmithKline’s RTS,S, has been in final testing. At the same time, Ashley and his colleagues have been working to realign MVI’s strategy toward an ambitious long-term goal: the eventual elimination of malaria.
See why Ashley is committed to developing malaria vaccines, and learn about their role in preventing the disease.
What’s it been like to be working at PATH MVI as the RTS,S vaccine candidate goes through testing?
It really is exciting, and it’s one of the things that drew me to MVI. I think the progress we have made to date with RTS,S is a tremendous achievement. It is one important building block as we move into the future and helps set the stage for what we need to do. It’s critical to learn from our successes and our failures, integrating the experience and knowledge that we’ve gained from RTS,S and other projects into the next generation of vaccines.
Equally as exciting, however, is the malaria vaccine community’s commitment to achieving the long-term goal of eradicating malaria altogether. There are tools available to control malaria today. But we still have 627,000 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—and RTS,S may be that tool—but we also need to develop vaccines that can prevent the transmission of the malaria-causing parasite between people and mosquitoes and break the cycle altogether.
Are there any successes in your career that you’ve found especially satisfying?
I have gained a great deal of satisfaction from bringing together groups with complementary technology platforms to form integrated teams that collaborate toward achieving a common goal. This type of operating model, while often challenging to implement, will be critical for us to achieve our mission of accelerating malaria vaccine development. I have particularly enjoyed advancing programs from a very early phase—from a point of interacting with academic experts to establish new programs, based on novel concepts—and advancing them to clinical trials.
Before joining PATH, I led several such projects with grants from the 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?
I did. It was a challenge, but very rewarding. And it gives me a greater appreciation for the funders we have today. It’s not just the magnitude of the investments 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 eliminate 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.