A fascination with pharma
As a child in the 1950s, Peter Wells spent a lot of time in his father’s pharmacy. His interest in the new medicines being developed for use in animals led him to a career in research and development
Growing up in the market town of Hexham, Northumberland, in the 1950s, I spent many hours in my father’s pharmacy and became familiar with the medicines that farmers were buying for their livestock. In those days, modern medicines such as anthelmintics were only just being discovered, and I remember the anticipation when a new product, Frantin, was announced and became available from Burroughs Wellcome. This was a significant advance for the control of Nematodirus infection, which at that time was a major cause of death in lambs. I was intrigued to learn that this product, a biphenium compound, had been developed at the Wellcome Veterinary Research Station at Frant in Kent, and this sparked my interest in working in research in such a facility.
The question then became, ‘How would it be possible to achieve this ambition?’ At school, the advice was that a biochemistry degree could be a suitable stepping stone. However, this didn’t really appeal to me. At about this time, through working on my brother’s farm in Allendale, I met the local veterinary surgeons. Maybe it was the fast cars that they drove rather than the job itself that attracted me, but gradually I came around to the idea of working in a large animal practice. This led me to apply for and successfully obtain a place at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh.
It was during the third year of the course when we were introduced to pharmacology that I began to think again about a career in research. During this part of the curriculum, I met the person who played the greatest part in helping me achieve my ambition. Peter Eyre was the most inspiring of our lecturers and he was about to take up the position of associate professor in biomedical sciences at the Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. He offered me the chance of being his first postgraduate student on successful completion of my veterinary course.
From Scotland to Canada
So, following only a very brief period in practice in Hawick in the summer of 1969 after entry into the RCVS, my wife, Ceri, and I went to Ontario. I enrolled for a Masters in Veterinary Pharmacology in the University of Guelph and, to support us during my studies, Ceri took on a professorial role in the school of physical education. Things went well and I was fortunate to be able to convert to a PhD programme, in which immunology became a significant element, with the help and influence of Ian Tizard, another ‘Dick Vet’ alumnus. Later, he was also instrumental in helping me find my first research appointment in Edinburgh at the Moredun Research Institute in 1973.
This was an exciting time at the Moredun, where a team had been assembled to tackle the problem of ovine pasteurellosis. There was a great team spirit and the research led to a vaccine, which, for the first time, was shown to protect against pneumonic pasteurellosis in sheep. In parallel with this, I participated in the group whose research resulted in the prototype of the vaccine that is marketed as Rotavec (MSD Animal Health) for the control of disease associated with bovine rotavirus infection.
My next opportunity for personal development came in 1978 with the chance to take up the post of visiting scientist at the newly built International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD) on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, in a team involved in research on trypanosomosis and theileriosis (East Coast fever). I was fortunate to work with some excellent veterinary scientists and learn new technology, such as the production of monoclonal antibodies from a scientist who had moved to ILRAD from the laboratory in Cambridge where this technology had been discovered.
It was during this period that I decided the time had come to try to find a job in the animal health pharmaceutical industry – finally to get this ambition out of my system.
Achieving an ambition
An opportunity arose to join the company that had licensed the ovine pasteurellosis vaccine technology from Moredun. So, in 1980, I joined Hoechst Animal Health in a development role to participate in the commercialisation of this product. It was a massive change in work pattern to become familiar with the regulatory environment for the approval of products, while joining the team in the laboratory and on the farm to assist in testing the vaccines. In addition, I had to support technical services in answering inquiries from vets and farmers, and the sales and marketing efforts in promoting the existing and new products. Nevertheless, it was exciting and especially rewarding to see new products enter the market.
Over the years, the job expanded to include more managerial responsibility, which encompassed further technical functions such as technical services, regulatory affairs, quality control and quality assurance. Later, the role extended to management of research and development (R&D) activities on vaccines in other markets outside Europe, including the USA and India. It was a continuous learning experience, with the advantage of being in a large company that encouraged personal development with an excellent programme of internal and external courses.
This came to an abrupt end after almost 20 years when the company was acquired by a competitor. It was a difficult time while we made every effort to support our people during the integration process. A phone call informed me that my job would not exist in the future. In the event, it was probably the best thing that could have happened, as it forced me to look for new employment. In 2000 I secured a position as head of vaccine R&D at Novartis Animal Health, which was entering the veterinary vaccine market for the first time. It was a fantastic chance to start learning again about aspects of the animal health business in new market areas such as aquaculture. Gradually we expanded our vaccine R&D resource with the acquisition of other companies in the USA and Canada.
In 2004, another Dick Vet alumnus, George Gunn, CEO of Novartis Animal Health, asked me to take on a role together with a colleague, Fabian Kausche, to jointly head up the global R&D activity of the company for pharmaceutical and vaccine products. With a different partner this could have been a recipe for disaster, but it turned out to be the most enjoyable time in my entire career. It was at the start of this appointment that I remember the immense pride on the day I entered the gates of one of the larger R&D sites that I had become responsible for in Switzerland, many years on from the days of my early teens in Hexham when I dreamed of working in such a facility.
In 2006, I took over sole responsibility for R&D in the organisation, and it is difficult to describe the privilege and excitement of being a part of the executive management team in a large global company. The interaction with people in different parts of the organisation in many different countries was one of the most fulfilling aspects of the job and, had I not taken the path of postgraduate study, it might never have been possible. When it was time to retire from full-time employment, my greatest regret was that I had to say farewell to so many colleagues.
In ‘retirement’, life is far from quiet, since nonexecutive board, consultancy and other positions have a habit of turning up. For example, it was an honour to be appointed chairman of Moredun Scientific in 2008 – a development that had symmetry about it, given that my research career began at the Moredun Research Institute – and as Honorary Professor in Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Nottingham in 2009. Right now, I am embarking on a role that I anticipate will be both demanding and fulfilling, as Interim CEO of GALVmed (the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines). GALVmed is a pro-poor alliance, working through partners to make livestock vaccines, medicines and diagnostics available and affordable to resource-poor livestock keepers in the developing world.
Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had a wide-ranging career, because breadth of experience and resourcefulness matter more today than ever. I have never claimed to be an expert in anything, but hope that I have learned something about many things and, along the way, have certainly met and worked with some great people.