FARE recently announced the appointment of James R. Baker, Jr., MD as chief executive officer and chief medical officer. Jim has been serving as interim CEO since the departure of FARE’s previous CEO, John Lehr, at the end of August. He has served on FARE’s Research Advisory Board for a number of years, helping set the research strategy for the organization and reviewing research proposals. A board-certified allergist and accomplished researcher with more than three decades in the field, Jim has been instrumental in the development and execution of “A Vision and Plan for Food Allergy Research,” FARE’s ambitious strategic plan for advancing the field of food allergy research published in 2013. He also has been a strong advocate for improving food allergy education, promoting food allergy advocacy initiatives and increasing awareness of the potentially life-threatening nature of food allergies. We asked Jim to tell us a bit more about himself and his vision for FARE in this interview:
Tell us a bit about your background.
Probably the most relevant part of my background is the fact that I’ve been an allergist for almost 35 years and spent 20 years running allergy and immunology at the University of Michigan. My decision to become an allergist was based on my fascination with the immune system. The immune system is the only part of the human body that you could actually educate; after an infection or a vaccine, you can teach the immune system to protect itself against something new. The immune system has almost unlimited capability to evolve and protect itself against multiple types of infections, and this was remarkable to me. My quest to understand the intricate workings of the immune system drove me to specialize in allergy and immunology, and to do basic research on the immune system and vaccines.
One of my biggest concerns when I first became an allergist was that there would be no illnesses to treat as my career advanced. The knowledge of the immune system was advancing so rapidly I believed that many of the fundamental diseases of the immune system, like allergies, would be fully defined and treatable within a decade or two. Paradoxically, however, at the same time our knowledge of the immune system increased, the complexity of human immune disease grew at a more rapid rate. Allergies are now much more common than they were 30 years ago, and food allergies in particular have become extremely common. The reason for this explosion in allergic disease is not clear and is one of the most pressing problems in human research today. It is this problem that keeps me fully engaged as a physician.
How did you become involved with FARE?
I became involved with FARE because of my background in immunology and because of my recognition of food allergy as such a pressing problem. I was working with both FAI and FAAN (the Food Allergy Initiative and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, FARE’s legacy organizations) and had started our own Food Allergy Center at the University of Michigan. Through this I interacted with many of the board members of these organizations, and I was impressed with their vision for a national advocacy organization for food allergy. I was invited to join the Research Advisory Board and worked with many of FARE’s staff. When they approached me to help them in an interim position as chief medical officer, I felt honored and truly enjoyed the experience. I was fortunate to be asked to serve as the interim and now permanent CEO for an organization that I feel is full of terrific people with an incredibly important mission.
What do you see as FARE’s most important priorities in supporting the food allergy community and advancing the field of food allergy research?
FARE’s major initiatives are to help ensure that people with food allergies can live safe, productive lives with the respect of others and have access to state-of-the-art healthcare while providing them with hope for better therapies for the disease. Food allergy won’t be cured quickly and we must make sure that people with food allergies are able to live normal lives in the meantime. Our education and advocacy initiatives are focused on making sure individuals can safely access and engage in a full range of life activities regardless of their food allergy. Finally, we need to encourage and support research that provides an understanding of the basis of food allergies and develops new treatments that reduce the risk of life-threatening reactions.
What do you hope to accomplish in your tenure as FARE’s CEO?
First, I hope to improve the lifestyle of patients with food allergy through education and advocacy efforts that will ensure improved understanding of the disease and better accommodations for the 15 million Americans with food allergies. I also want to help identify physicians who are focused on treating and helping patients with food allergies so that the individuals we serve will know where to go for help. Finally, I hope to engage the pharmaceutical industry to develop and test drugs to treat food allergies. This includes encouraging them to test drugs that have proved useful for other allergic diseases in food allergy.
If you could look 10 years into the future, what progress do you think we will see in the field of food allergy?
While I think finding a cure for food allergy is a long-term goal, I believe that over the next few years we will have medications to treat patients with food allergies that go beyond simply treating anaphylaxis once it is occurring. Many diseases do not have cures, but they do have therapies that allow people to accommodate their illness. If we could achieve the same type of effective therapy for food allergy, the lives of patients would be markedly improved and we could focus on the underlying causes for the disease.
Welcome to FARE, Jim!