Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Parkinsons interview: Part II


Last updated 7/9/2015 at 4:44pm

Jeannie Beck

I recently got a chance to revisit the impressive Dr. Carrolee Barlow to check up on the latest happenings at the Parkinson's Institute, while she was taking a rare break in her busy schedule to visit the home she shares in Borrego with her equally impressive partner, husband Dr. David Lockhart. On our previous meeting Dr. Barlow told about some of the promising research going forward at the Institute and I was struck by the real concern she has for those suffering from Parkinson's disease and her commitment to helping ease that suffering. Once again I caught her gardening, but she graciously agreed to take the time to tell me a little more about her career and even let me catch a glimpse of some of the other sides of her life.

Beck: What brings you back to Borrego?

Barlow: I had business in San Diego over the weekend to help pilot a program for the Institute where we can find information from 25 years ago- photographs, old-fashioned slides, paper notes from clinical records etc- and use this new data science and information technology to save things in a way that we can mine it.

We're trying to use these new technologies so we can take everything we've done in the past and integrate it, so a google search can be done to find it. But you can imagine that's quite a project because nothing is in the same format as it is today where information from medical records is automatically digitized. We didn't know if this would work or not because it's so complicated, but we had this wonderful philanthropist who donated the money to see if it would work, and it looks like it will, so we'll find a new way to raise more funding for it.

We think it's more cost-effective to uncover all the data we've already generated and not lose the 25 years of work already done at our center. So I came down to work with the people helping us with that project. We want to find everything we can about these patients to see if there's an important discovery that we've missed or an innovation we could take advantage of to see if we could do a better job and move faster in finding a treatment.

Beck: Very exciting. Did the Institute already have the walk you were telling me about last time?

Barlow: Yes. It was fantastic. We had more than 600 walkers come to the event, plus their families and teams. We raised almost $170,000 in our first walk ever, so that's a great start. Hopefully next year we're going to do even better. It was a lot of fun. People stayed for at least seven hours.

We had Parkinson's exercises with a trainer up at the front doing all the stretches. Everyone in the crowd was doing it. It didn't matter if it was a person with Parkinson's in their 80's or a 4-year old child. It was so inspirational. It was a perfect day and well-attended. A lot of good vibes and tons of support for people living with Parkinson's.

Beck: Where was it held?

Barlow: It was in Baylands Park; right there in Sunnyvale by our Institution. Dave!" Carrolee called into the house from where we were seated by the pool. Dave came out and sat at the table with us – wearing a "Less Talk More Walk" wrist-band.

Lockhart: I'm so supportive.

Beck: Yes. And you're a doctor also?

Lockhart: I'm a scientist. A Ph.D. not an M.D.

Beck: Tell me a little bit about what you do.

Lockhart: I'm the CEO of a bio tech company and we're developing therapies for rare life-threatening diseases that don't have any current therapies.

Beck: What a team. Is this how you met?

Lockhart: We met doing some research when Carrolee was still a Professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego and I was at a new institute across the street and we started collaborating on some projects.

Beck: How long ago was that?

Lockhart: Almost fifteen years ago.

Beck: So how do two people with very successful careers manage to stay married?

Barlow: Borrego is a huge help because it's one of the things that we really both like – coming to a place where we can decompress and it's so different out here and so quiet. It's a great place to think.

Often we'll go on hikes and figure out all sorts of things together. 'So, what do you think could be the clinical development path for that?' or ' What would be the best way to screen for this?' So we kind of get a chance to be out here and not be in the thick of work, where we can be a little more creative and can think quite a bit and talk things over.

Lockhart: Or just unwind. It's a nice break. We first started going to the desert just to basically get away. We had a place for awhile in La Quinta but then it got kind of crowded, so we started looking around and drove out here and found this. It was less crowded and we love the desert and also the fact that it's right in the Park. We hike a lot, we ride motorcycles and love just being outside. We like people but it's nice to not be in places all the time that are crowded- with more nature and less man-made stuff."

Dave grew up in Lakeside and from there went on to Stanford and MIT so I was curious how it all came about for him.

Beck: How did you know this was what you wanted to do? Did you always know?

Lockhart: I didn't always know. I didn't know much of anything. In retrospect, I think people pretend it was all planned out. That wasn't the case for me anyway. I just did pretty well in school so I kept going, but I can't say I had a big plan or had it worked out – or even knew I was going to go into science. I just took science classes in high school and college because I thought they were interesting and tended to be the hardest classes so I just kind of wanted to see what I could do, and if you do well enough, you get other opportunities.

I did well in college so I got to go to grad school. Even when I went to grad school I thought, 'I'm just going to go to grad school for awhile and see what happens.' Kids today are told they're supposed to already know all that at an early age. Carrolee didn't know either. She was an English major when she was in college.

Barlow: It's been a good collaboration for us because I can ask him about all the physics and chemistry and statistics and he asks me about all the medicine and physiology and biology – so now we kind of know a lot more about things.

Beck: I wondered if you helped one another.

Barlow: We've collaborated on a lot of projects too.

Lockhart: I think we have about fourteen published papers together and most recently we're responsible for developing a drug that looks like it's going to be approved.

Barlow: Our skill sets and our backgrounds are nicely complimentary. We know enough about what the other does to converse, but our backgrounds and experiences are not identical. It actually works out pretty well.

Beck: It sounds like a great partnership.

Barlow: But we have to say sometimes... 'We have to talk about work for awhile but then no more talk about work!'

They then told me about a very long year and a half when they were holed up in a room in New Jersey to be near a company they were helping develop a drug for.

Barlow: We never stopped talking about work.

Lockhart: That was a very hard year.

Barlow: So after we finished that project we said, 'Okay, there has to be a moratorium.' If we've already worked 8 or 10 hours that day then we can talk work for half an hour at home, but once you get to 12 hours of work every day, you start to go crazy. So we're way more careful about that now.

Beck: I guess it takes that kind of commitment to really make a big change.

Barlow: Yeah.

Lockhart: It was a difficult year but the good thing was at least it feels a little better when it's a hard year and something good comes of it. Not just a hard year to be a hard year.

Barlow: There's nothing more satisfying than being able to bring in a new medicine to people. That's pretty much as good as it gets.

Lockhart: That's pretty much both of our goals, even though we come at it from different angles."

They can't tell me about the new drug yet but only that it's for a rare life-threatening disease.

Beck: It's nice that you both are working in an area where there's so little hope; where you can really make a difference in somebody's life.

Barlow: We definitely choose the stuff that's the hardest, for better or for worse; going for things where you can make the biggest difference. That makes it feel like it's worth it to work that hard.

Beck: I respect that.

Lockhart: You don't always have to choose the absolutely most difficult thing – you don't get extra points for that- but for most of us ... if you're going to do something like this, which we've decided to do, and you really put that much effort into it, it would have to be something that isn't just another drug for something where there are already three drugs, even it it's easy and you could make a lot of money at it. It's not worth doing.

What is worth doing is to try to come up with a therapy for something that has no therapy or where the existing therapies are better than nothing but they leave a lot of room for improvement. We prefer to work on things that have a chance to make a big difference and not just another thing for people to buy. That's not compelling enough.

Barlow: We also collaborate on yard work. We've moved a lot of boulders.

Lockhart: We took out a whole wall of oleander from the lot when we bought this house. Beyond that was dead cactus and creosote. We cleared that all by hand.

Beck: It looks really nice.

Barlow: We built the fire pit together. Everyone who comes over says 'Is that a perfect circle?' Of course it is, we're scientists. (They both laugh.) Me, my mom and Dave did everything for the first five or six years. Then Tom Fredericks came and helped get the really big rocks placed.

Beck: It sounds like you guys are kind of like perfectionists.

Lockhart: Nothing out here is really perfect.

Barlow: We can't make it perfect. The winds are so brutal – if you don't have the trees all trimmed the branches break and the trees tip over. We've staked and tied up a few that were leaning over to rescue them.

Beck: The doctors are on the case. Where else do you spend your time besides Borrego?

Barlow: In the Bay area where our jobs are. We also spend time in San Diego. There's a lot of fund-raising opportunities for the Institute in San Diego and we also have a lot of patients who come from San Diego. We come down and meet with them and see how they're doing and find ways we can help do a better job communicating with their physicians down here. We try to be here at least one weekend every month."

They say they are not afraid of the heat but just get up earlier in the morning to ride their motorcycles or go for hikes. We talked quite awhile about all the best places to hike in Borrego, and they also like to look at the stars from their roof deck or sit around the fire pit at night. They sometimes go out with friends to watch the sunset at Font's Point or other areas around the Badlands.

Beck: It sounds like you make the most of your desert experience.

Barlow: And if you do nothing but sit around and weed your yard, that's also fine. I like it here a lot. It's very quiet. Very open.

Lockhart: We bring a lot of our friends out here who've not necessarily spent any time in the desert. They come out here and it's like they've just been sent to the moon.

Barlow: We recently brought some friends out here and showed them all this stuff in the desert and they were fascinated. They loved Borrego. Afterward they said they understood completely why we were here. It's so relaxing, so beautiful, unique ... Other people come out and they don't get it. There's no Starbucks ... what's going on ... you don't even have a TV that works here. They don't ever want to come back.

Lockhart: When some people come out here you can see it on their face they don't get it. One person's wide open space and quiet is another person's desolation. It's kind of a combination of being sort of plain but also scary. I think some people feel a little afraid to be so far out in the open, and it can get really hot and there aren't a lot of people around. Some people think of natural beauty as things that are always green and lush but the desert beauty is a very different type of beauty. We love it here.

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