Professional focus: An interview with Professor Peter Barnes

The incoming ERS President, Professor Barnes tells us about his area of work how he sees the role of patients developing within the ERS.

Professor Barnes is Professor of Thoracic Medicine and Head of Respiratory Medicine at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College, London and Honorary Consultant Physician at Royal Brompton Hospital, London.

Professor Barnes has been involved in the ERS for the last 20 years and began his Presidency at the 2013 Annual Congress in Barcelona.

Can you tell us about your area of work?

I started working in the field of obstructive lung disease, looking at the mechanisms of airway diseases and new therapies for asthma in particular. More recently, I’ve shifted the focus of my research to look at COPD, specifically looking at how we can develop new drugs to treat this disease.

How did you become involved in this area of work?

I started my career as a General Medical Registrar. I was told that if I wanted to progress further, I needed to conduct some research. At first, I wasn’t sure I would be suited to this, but decided to apply for a research post looking at the pharmacology (the effects of drugs) in asthma. I became really interested in this project, despite my initial hesitations, and have continued to conduct research in this field ever since.

What are you priorities in your role as ERS President over the next year?

The ERS is at a successful time in its history, with a strong annual Congress attracting a high number of delegates from around the world. We now have the opportunity to look at future directions for the Society and there are several key areas I will be looking to develop over the next year:

  • Increasing membership – We have a strong membership base and we hope to strengthen this by making membership more accessible over the coming months. This will allow even more people to access the educational materials and journals that the ERS has to offer.
  •  Fellowship of the ERS – I would like to develop this Fellowship to recognise excellence in respiratory medicine. Leading professionals could be elected to the fellowship after exceptional contributions in their field. This would ultimately create an elite body of professionals who could be called upon for other activities, such as the development of new guidelines.
  •  Encouraging young members – Young members are the future of respiratory medicine and over the next year, I would like to see them play a vital role in the structure of the Society.
  • Partnerships with other respiratory societies – The ERS already has strong links with other respiratory organisations across the globe, such as the American Thoracic Society and the Latin American Thoracic Society. We hope to build on these links and foster new partnerships over the course of the next few years.

In the long-term, I hope to see the following key areas develop: 

  • Flagship Society for research – I believe the ERS is in a strong enough position to be orchestrating research, not just reporting on the results as we currently do. It would be my goal in the long-term to see the ERS leading a research agency, alongside pharmaceutical companies, to ultimately deliver high quality research.
  • Integrate research into Congress sessions – I would like to ensure that basic science is represented within each symposium at the ERS Congress thereby ensuring that research is brought straight to clinicians who are working with patients.
  • Integrate education into Congress sessions – It is vital that delegates at the Congress can access the latest developments in all areas of lung health, not just those they specialise in. I would like to ensure that talks on the latest educational updates are provided in sessions for this purpose.

How do you see the role of patients within the ERS developing? 

Patients play a vital role in the life of the ERS. By using ELF as a vehicle to provide feedback and share valuable experiences, we have seen their role strengthen over the last few years. I believe this should continue to develop and we hope within the coming months to elect a patient as the new chair of ELF. 

This person would build on the steps already taken to ensure patients were involved in sessions at Congress and that the work of the ERS will continue to be relevant and beneficial for patients.

What do you enjoy most about your work? 

My passion is research and I really enjoy contributing to a better understanding of the science of airway diseases. In my career, I was involved in starting up a spin-out company from Imperial College in London. This company has progressed in recent years and been bought by the pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson. They currently have three drugs in Phase II of a clinical trial. It’s really exciting for me to see the development of my research turning into something that has the potential to directly benefit patients.

I’ve also felt very privileged to be able to travel to different research centres across the globe. This has given me invaluable experience of meeting with researchers and clinicians and bringing their skills back to my own centre. By creating this virtual network of colleagues, we have been able to share learning and improve practices.

What are you most proud of about the ERS? 

I am proud of how successful the society has become and excited about the prospect of developing our activities further.

I’ve also taken great pleasure in seeing the success of the long-term and short-term fellowships the ERS has been able to offer. This provides researchers with the opportunity to move around the world, building up their knowledge base and networking with new colleagues.

Our advocacy activities in Brussels have ensured that respiratory medicine is reaching the agenda of policymakers. For a long time, the areas of cardiology, diabetes and cancer received a lot of attention, while respiratory was relatively ignored. This has begun to change now and in the upcoming Horizon2020 research funding programme, there will be an emphasis on the interaction of diseases, rather than looking at one disease in isolation. This is a big step forward and I’m pleased to see respiratory is a key part of this agenda.

In addition, the educational activities we’ve offered have gone from strength to strength with the HERMES examinations, which have become a recognised standard across Europe, to the popular handbooks offering a compact guide on key areas of lung health.

The ERS has always been open-minded. The strong leadership over the last few years has always been forward-thinking, resulting in strong initiatives such as the European Respiratory Roadmap, tackling health inequalities and addressing gaps in research. I hope to build on this at my Presidential Summit in July next year when I will look at the role of translational medicine and how we can move these new scientific discoveries into real benefits for patients.

I look forward to the challenges over the next year and to taking the ERS forward as an international Society.

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