Food allergies are on the rise and getting more dangerous, but there’s a significant dearth in research for solutions. To understand the great strides some programs and groups are making in allergy research, we spoke with Lisa Gable, CEO of the not-for-profit Food Allergy Education and Research.
ABERMAN: Is food allergy a really big problem in our country?
GABLE: It’s a significant problem, and it’s been growing a lot since 1998. We have 32 million Americans who have life threatening food allergies. It’s an unbelievable number. And originally in ‘98, we saw that number growing with children. However, one of the scariest things now is that we are seeing adults who are actually having anaphylactic reactions to foods they’ve eaten their entire life.
ABERMAN: This sounds more to me like a public health crisis than a bunch of people being dramatic.
GABLE: It is a huge public health crisis, and it’s an underrecognized one. What makes it even worse is, right now, these patients don’t really have any choices. They can avoid the food. If they have accidental ingestion of the food, their choice is an EpiPen and running to the emergency room. What we are hopeful for is that there are some therapies going through the FDA for approval right now, that could mitigate risk for that patient, and that is what we are focused on: ensuring that those therapies get through the FDA, and that we open the door for research to bring diagnostics and therapy to the market.
ABERMAN: Tell me a bit about FARE and what you’re up to right now.
GABLE: Well, I was actually hired into FARE a year ago. My background is bringing in businesses to help solve problems. My last role was also helping to solve a public health crisis; in that case, the issue of obesity, and how industry can play a role in that. I’m focused on two things: as I said, one is that we are working with the pharmaceutical companies, and also researchers, so that we can actually bring therapies into market, and help solve the problem by mitigating risk for that individual, with the goal that it becomes a nuisance, not a life threatening situation. So, we are building, we are reengineering our FARE clinical network, so that we are ready for trials, and so that we can actually have the capacity to help move the market forward more quickly. And so, it’s a time to market issue. On the other side of the equation, we’re talking about food.
And so, my background has been dealing with agriculture, and the consumer product goods companies. Those are packaged foods, or foods in restaurants that you eat. And there, I’m focused on seed to table. And essentially, the conversations I’ve had this week are ones where I’m talking to companies that are doing the genomic mapping of the seed, so we can actually identify, potentially, what protein would actually have to be removed at the point of seed to ensure that there is no allergic reaction.
Today, I had a wonderful meeting with a company in A.I., and what they were talking to us about is, as they’re doing the formulation of products, or what we call changing the recipe, a reformulation of products, is how can they do that with an awareness that when they substitute, something whether it’s substituting a natural flavor for a chemical, or substituting a plant protein for meat, that they are calculating in that they’re not adding something that would actually introduce an allergen into the food supply.
ABERMAN: As I hear you speak, I come away with the conclusion you speak authoritatively, you speak about this like a business person. And as I’ve experienced CEOs, when you come in from the outside, as you have, having a career in both the public service and the private sector, and leadership role, how is it different bringing a business perspective to a not for profit, even one as important as FARE?
GABLE: As a not for profit, you’re in the process of accumulating donations. But we also recognize that there are a lot of people being asked for money for a lot of different needs that are out there, especially in the public health arena and the health arena. And so, coming from the business sector, my group that I’ve brought in is actually analyzing revenue generating opportunities, essentially setting up the clinical trial process, or the use of our clinical networks on behalf of moving therapies to market in a manner that it produces revenue.
That revenue gets cycled into actually creating more research. And so, how do we use the market itself to actually drive the solutions? How do we get companies to look at the fact that, from a consumer product goods standpoint, having a diagnostic that will allow us to understand what causes someone to react, and at what threshold they react, that means what level of food causes a reaction. That’s the data we don’t have right now. That data is sellable.
ABERMAN: I think that many people who don’t spend time in the not for profit sector these days are caught in an old model, where you’re just asking for donor money. What I see more and more is that, what donors want to know is, what’s sustainable? How do I give you a dollar and have you turn it into ten towards a cause? Is that really what you’re seeing?
GABLE: It’s really what we’re seeing, and actually, our conversations on Capitol Hill are very similar. What we’re saying is that, since we came on board, we’ve had about 53 million dollars committed towards the research. Those are private moneys. Now, what we’re talking to government about, is reducing the barriers. So, when the private sector comes in, whether it’s individual donors, small donors, or companies, they bring the money to bear, so we can solve the problem, but we still need to move through the governmental process.
Particularly, when you’re talking about pharmaceuticals or food. And so at that point, we can have a conversation about barriers, and we’re actually not getting ourselves tied in to that never ending discussion in Washington about budgets. So, it’s a collaborative process across the board, from the companies, from the patient advocates, to the government.
ABERMAN: Sounds to me like you were very prepared for this job, but was there something that surprised you pleasantly when you took it on?
GABLE: I’ve just been incredibly impressed with the amazing people that I have the opportunity to work with. We have some very committed donors who’ve actually been funding this research for a long period of time. They’ve personally funded clinical trials. As you mentioned, there are a lot of people who don’t understand how big this issue is, of food allergies. And so, we have a very committed group of people who’ve actually helped bring us to this very exciting point that we’re at today.
ABERMAN: Well I have to tell you, I’ve loved having you in the studio today, and learning about FARE, and just another great example of how we can make a big difference, by throwing business energy at a big problem. So, thanks for joining us today.
GABLE: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.