What began as a combination of a love for sport and for science, Chris Alma’s career has taken him abroad, from small to large biotech, and from bench scientist to Director and Lead the Cell Therapy Platform Development at CSL. As the latest addition to ARMI’s Industry Advisory Committee (IAC), Chris brings a breadth and depth of experience and expertise on recognising and realising commercial value, as well as in the area of gene therapy.
Growing up, most of Chris’s time was spent playing any and every sport with a ball (cricket, soccer, rugby and tennis), and his schooling life was always focused on the maths and science path. Following his undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), it was this passion for both sport and science that led to his first scientific job at the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory (ASDTL) just before the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Of that time, Chris said, “I became involved in the group developing a test for erythropoietin (EPO), and subsequent approval for testing at the Olympics was a great achievement for the group. After the Olympics, I set out to do my Honours Degree also at ASDTL through UTS, developing a test for abuse of blood substitutes (such as polymerised haemoglobin) in athletes.” Even early in his career, Chris was acutely aware of the application of research in the real world.
Afterwards, Chris began a PhD in cancer genetics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, USA, before deciding to finish up early with a Master of Science (MSc). With a mature clarity and steely determination, Chris knew he wanted to not only return to Australia, but also to pursue a career in industry. He found himself at EnGeneIC in Sydney, a small biotech focused on delivering cancer therapeutics via bacterially-derived nanoparticles. Here, he received a broad exposure to working in a small biotechnology company in Australia.
“After six years I found a new role in the scientific affairs and collaboration team at Calimmune, a gene therapy company with footprints in Australia and the US. It is here I met new mentors in the gene therapy space, and I could really feel my career development and confidence grow exponentially. We were performing pioneering work in the ex vivo lentiviral HSC space and also exploring early work in non-viral delivery of CRISPR machinery,” Chris explained. This proved to be a pivotal experience for Chris’s career, as he covered a spectrum of responsibilities in his role including business development, corporate intelligence, project management, identification and evaluation of nascent technologies, and high-level input/responses for investors. It was also here where Chris became deeply interested in regenerative medicine, energised by “the potential promise of a functional cure for patients with rare disease.”
CSL acquired Calimmune and Chris’s career trajectory continued upwards, but now in a larger biopharma company. At the time, CSL had no programs in gene therapy and Chris made many contributions to both the early internal gene therapy pipeline and strategic external collaborations. Today, he uses his strong gene therapy knowledge, leadership and project management skills to grow and innovate CSL’s current main platform, ex vivo HSC lentiviral gene therapy.
Joining ARMI’s IAC, Chris’s experience in both small biotech and now CSL can help provide perspectives to researchers on the types of biomedical discoveries that have commercial value. He says, “Hopefully I can direct research at ARMI to lead to outcomes that either end up in patients, or are licensed/partnered with industry. I also hope to engage with individual researchers and assist them with career development.” Welcome Chris!