Highlighting The Career Path of Conor Gallagher, Medical Director at Allergan, Inc.
By: Petri Takkala
Taking Critical Thinking Skills From Academia to Industry
Conor Gallagher (PhD) uses the skills that he developed during his scientific training to guide research and development for commercial therapeutic applications as the Medical Director for a specialty pharmaceutical company.
Comprehensive Scientific Training
Originally trained as a physiotherapist at University College Dublin, Conor subsequently completed a Master’s degree in anatomy at University College Cork. He moved to Canada and worked as a physiotherapist for two years before embarking on his PhD at the University of Toronto (UofT), where he obtained his PhD from the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) in 2003 under the supervision of Dr. Michael Salter. His thesis focused on spinal cord neurophysiology. Research at the time suggested that the glial cells surrounding neurons are not inert and may have an intrinsic communication function. In the central nervous system, astrocytes surround neurons and their synapses and may serve to modulate synaptic transmission. For his thesis, then, Conor worked on developing a better understanding of purinergic signaling in astrocytes in the spinal dorsal horn and also on cells that had been transfected to express ATP-activated P2Y receptors. He spent much time examining propagating calcium waves evoked by ATP in astrocyte networks in primary dorsal horn cultures in order to elucidate the mechanism of cell-cell communication in astrocytes.
Passion for Teaching and Scientific Communication
Conor took on active roles in teaching and designing courses during his PhD studies. He quickly realized that scientific communication and teaching were his passion, and thus took steps to gain as much relevant experience as possible. Capitalizing on his expertise in anatomy, Conor made connections in the Departments of Physiotherapy, Anatomy, and the Michener Institute to teach anatomy. He further worked as a demonstrator in the medical student anatomy labs, and developed an anatomy course at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. All this experience was pivotal in making the transition to work in the private sector, first as a medical science liaison, a position heavily dependent on scientific communication. However, the lack of exposure to alternative careers in science at the time meant that many students were unaware of different career paths after completing their graduate studies.
By taking an active role in learning about alternative careers, and networking to learn about job opportunities and the required skills he would need in industry, Conor made the transition to work as a Medical Science Liaison at Allergan, Inc. a US-based pharmaceutical company. A Medical Science Liaison is the external scientific face of a company, working with physicians to help educate them about the extensive body of clinical studies associated with a drug, and they work with clinical studies groups in identifying clinical trial sites to investigate the potential application of new therapies. A Medical Science Liaison also connects physicians/scientists interested in conducting independent research on a company’s products with the appropriate people at the company. This role is integral to corporate Medical Affairs which is responsible for ensuring a company’s compliance with regulatory guidelines, working with regulatory agencies, and provides technical support for internal teams and customers. Conor began by working on Botox for therapeutic uses. Botox had been previously approved for treating cervical dystonia and a number of other indications but the company wanted to examine whether it can be used to treat spasticity and migraines, and overactive bladder. This was the perfect project to get started on, since Conor had abundant background knowledge of the mechanism of action of Botox, and was familiar with the physiology of botulinum toxins from his time at UofT. As a vesicular exocytosis inhibitor, Botox can be used to treat muscle spasms after stroke, or chronic migraines, and is currently being investigated for the treatment of osteoarthritis and depression. Although Botox has a relatively simple mechanism of action, it has plenty of potential applications. To tackle this project, a crucial first step was making connections between his physiotherapy background, and understanding the therapeutic area and the science behind it. A Medical Science Liaison is exposed to many areas of industrial science, and in particular regulatory affairs, and Research and Development. For a company, Research involves discovery and the basic science of a potential new product. This is where you get to see early pipeline ideas. For a pharmaceutical company, Development involves clinical trials, addressing regulatory guidelines, and the further steps involved in taking a drug to the market. A Medical Science Liaison works at the interface between clinical and basic science.
Science in Industry
Allergan Inc. is a specialty pharmaceutical company working with many different drugs and devices approved in several therapeutic areas. In the case of Botox, it was important to identify points of differentiation between Botox and competitor products, examining the comparative safety and efficacy profiles of products, and developing clinical and preclinical studies that would show differentiation. Conor’s next role at Allergan Inc. was to develop and drive the global scientific competitive strategy for the BOTOX® product, and understanding and communicating the key points of clinical and basic science differentiation between the various botulinum toxin products on the global market. To take this role Conor moved to the corporate head office in Irvine, California, to work on the global competitive strategy for Botox. While working closely with basic scientists, clinical development, and marketing teams on the competitive strategy for Botox, he quickly climbed the ranks to become a Medical Director. Each therapeutic area has a Medical Director who is in charge of designing and running Phase 4 clinical trials, coordinating data analyses and interpretation, designing a scientific strategy, and working closely with medical teams.s a Medical Director, Conor is responsible for the overall post-approval scientific strategy for a number of drugs and products at Allergan Inc. Each product has its own challenges and unique regulatory environment that must be appropriately addressed. Although he may not be returning to bench work anytime soon, Conor still gets to experience science everyday! Looking at data tables, reviewing clinical trials, and designing new trials are some of the key tasks that a Medical Director must juggle in their daily work. Publication of science in industry is as important as it is in academia. Results of clinical studies are scrutinized and carefully reviewed before publication, and all clinical trials in the US have to be added to a government website that monitors ongoing trials.
Transitioning from Academia to Industry
Everything you do in industry is collaborative. A basic science education provides the training to be able to look at data from different perspectives, and to think critically about results and studies. However, when moving into industry, it is also important to have skills that extend beyond lab techniques. Being a great communicator and having appropriate social abilities to effectively collaborate with internal and external colleagues are essential for working in medical affairs. Conor’s advice to IMS graduate students is to be aware of their requirement to become a confident presenter, and to have the ability to speak comfortably and explain scientific concepts in simple terms. Look for opportunities to collaborate and establish a healthy work-life balance which helps develop the soft skills that are crucial in industry!