“It matters what you put in your brain first,” says Jeff Barrett ’86.
The vice president of translational informatics at Sanofi Pharmaceuticals in Bridgewater, N.J., is talking about his chemical engineering foundation built at Drexel University. That start has served him well as he pursued a doctorate at the University of Michigan (1990) and found success in the field of pharmacokinetics, bioinformatics and more.
“Having chemical engineering as a base and understanding chemistry, math and problem solving was a wonderful place to start in terms of how you approach any problem-- life sciences or not,” says Barrett, 53, who lives in North Wales, Pa.
Growing up in Norristown, the well-rounded student enjoyed math and science and excelled at art. A brochure for Drexel—and that dragon logo—caught his eye.
Once he got deep into engineering classes, he knew he was in the right place. “It changed everything,” he says. “I could see problem solving aspects. I could see the puzzle that is engineering, changing from someone who memorizes to someone who conceptualizes. That’s really the core of engineering.”
Barrett found ways to use his creative side, taking an abstract problem and finding creative ways to define it mathematically. “That really allowed me to blossom,” he says.
His three co-ops proved pivotal. The first two—lab work for the USDA and equipment testing for a hospital—made clear to Barrett what he did not want to do with his life.
For his third co-op at then ICI Americas (now AstraZeneca), he was introduced to pharmacokinetics—and found his passion.
“You’re really figuring out the fate of the [drug] molecule once it enters the body,” he says. “Is it broken down into something harmful? How often do you have to administer it? Is there a potential for drug interactions?” The goal is to achieve maximum medical benefit with minimum side effects, that is the right dosage, Barrett explains.
He got his name on a couple of publications and was encouraged to pursue a doctorate.
On a visit to Ann Arbor, he met John G. Wagner, considered a founding father of pharmacokinetics. “He was an interesting man,” Barrett says. Wagner met him at the bus stop and handed him a stack of academic papers, homework for the next day’s interview. When they met to discuss the material, Barrett pointed out an error in one derivation. Wagner made him go to the blackboard and prove it.
“He stared at it and stared at it,” he says. Barrett was right, and got an offer to join the department right then and there. “I guess he was impressed.”
Barrett completed his doctorate in less than four years and landed at Merck, where he worked on pharmacokinetics and new drug development (Vasotec for hypertension, the blood thinner Aggrastat and the over-the-counter antacid Pepcid).
Over the years, Barrett worked on a number of drugs at various companies. At the start-up Somerset Pharmaceuticals in Tampa, Fla., where he was director of pharmacokinetics and computer resources, he advanced a drug for Parkinson’s disease. At DuPont, one focus as director of clinical pharmacokinetics was a medication for HIV (Sustiva).
“It’s research that matters,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to do good science and improve the quality of life for people.”
After a stint at Aventis, Barrett moved to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 2003 to direct a lab and create a pharmacometric center of excellence. He also was professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I wrote a lot of grants,” he says. In fact, he was regularly funded with NIH grants and published 100-plus papers over his decade there. He led the effort to figure out dosing requirements for children. When Barrett started, more than 75 percent of drugs listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference did not have any labeling for use in children, he says. “It’s less than 50 percent now,” he adds.
In 2013, Barrett joined Sanofi, where his focus has widened to include model-based simulations to understand disease progression and drug efficacy as well as the identification of the best patients to target for trials.
“The merger of data sciences around pharmacology, statistics and engineering—those three fields—defines what I do now,” he says.
But it all started with his Drexel foundation. Now, it’s the next generation’s turn.
Barrett’s son, Kyle, just completed his second year in chemical engineering at Drexel. Ryan, his younger child, will join the Dragons this fall as, you guessed it, a chemical engineering major.
By Lini S. Kadaba