I had been invited to attend Novartis, Ringaskiddy Co.Cork yesterday along with three guests I had chosen to come with me. For anyone reading that’s not from Ireland Ringaskiddy and Cork are right down in the South for most people from Cork they actually think Cork is the most important place on the planet, well funnily enough now it seems that way to me too however much it pains a Tipperary woman to admit that.

The reason for my change of heart over our closest rivals they have begun the process of moving the production of Tafinlar a targeted therapy Braf inhibitor, which is used in the treatment of metastatic melanoma to the Novartis production facility in Ringaskiddy.

Passing through Ringaskiddy is like driving down the boulevard of Pharma Central all the big companies have facilities down there including GSK who were the original owners of Tafinlar until it was sold to Novartis last spring, at present the production takes place at GSK in Singapore so it is a long drawn out process to shift production to Ireland and something new as normally drugs come through a more straight forward route of R & D within the company itself.

The plant itself is impressive in size I’m told it can take 15 mins to walk from one side to the other. As we arrived it was a beautiful day and some of the staff were actually doing a spinning class outside by the reception entrance, it was a bit surreal like wondering into some futuristic film scene where happy sweaty staff wonder the shiny corridors in their lunch hour, but reality is different and one shouldn’t jump to conclusions it was actually healthy living week at the plant and they are running a set of events to encourage staff to live healthier so no Utopia yet. In fact some I met  were suffering from the aches and pains of trying it out the day before, not sure they will be rushing to join a local class soon I used to absolutely love it when I went it is hard thought. There are about 800 employees give or take at the plant in Cork so it’s a big workforce and that’s as I said just one of the Pharma plants down there.

We had a very nice lunch in the boardroom with all the main parties involved in the transfer of production, unfortunately too many names to remember but we were joined by  Dorethea who is head of operations at the plant, I don’t know what she is like as the boss but I was certainly struck by her warmth and humour, she was easy to speak to and gave clear answers to the many questions I threw at her, I almost forgot to eat my lunch, which would have been a mistake as we had a longish walk ahead of us I had been told if I felt tired I could bail out whenever I wanted but it was fine, I was glad though I had brought my Sketchers along too and quickly changed into them before we set off in our white coats, goggles and hard hats.

First up was a visit to the Labs where the importance of quality of the product was outlined and the measures used to test to ensure that the product they make will be exactly the same in every regard as the one I presently take that’s made in Singapore. It is actually that strict adherence to quality to ensure the safety of the finished product that is the reason, even though, the first batch was made yesterday the Irish product will probably not actually reach the patient until near 2019, I certainly hope I will still be taking it by then!! It cannot be rushed there are numerous processes that have to be gone through before it will be allowed on the market, the real test of course will be when a patient takes it and hopefully notices absolutely no differences, these are high tech medications that do come with side effects attached some that can cause significant problems depending on the patient, we certainly do not want anymore added problems.  I certainly feel reassured after yesterday that their shouldn’t be any foreseeable issues. The thing that did surprise me though was the fact that the Tafinlar compound will be made in Cork but it is not being capsulized there it is shipped to Spain where that part of the process happens I’m sure there is good reason, but I wondered in the long-term how cost-effective that is but prehaps it is because the facilities are already there, and it would cost more to now set up and complete that part of the manufacturing in Ireland, it seems Tafinlar likes to travel as much as myself.

After the Labs, we took the long walk to the other side of the plant it is pretty much divided into two identical buildings each seven floors high, there is a good view between the two buildings of the gigantic wind turbine, (I’m sure it’s a supersized one) that stands in Ringaskiddy, I’m not normally a fan of wind turbines but this is majestic in size just the feat of engineering, to build the thing has to be admired. Up in the plant is a noisy spot, straight away I could get a chemical smell, not somewhere I would like to work and I didn’t see many up there I asked where is everyone apparently they scatter when visitors arrive same as any profession really. The map of the production process was on display I thought if I only had a photographic memory but of course no trade secrets I’m sure it’s even more top secret than Coca Cola and Guinness and definitely more important, they were in no danger though I wouldn’t get very far these days running away before the huffing and puffing would start. I won’t be offered any jobs in industrial espionage any time soon. I wouldn’t mind ziplinig across to that wind turbine or jumping off it with Daniel Craig though if he wants to call for me some day. I’d do anything for Daniel.

After the tour we headed back to the canteen and it became apparent they were expecting a large audience for our talk, everyone kept asking was I nervous truth is I have a scan this week so anything else by comparison is a doddle. We were running on Irish time so that always means a late start. Up first was Jo O Sullivan she is the Novartis Head of Marketing and something else very important but I’m easily distracted so can never remember titles. I have met Jo a few times on the Cancer circuit so to speak and she had invited me to speak. She gave a very good explanation of Melanoma to the staff, and about the drugs available and the differences in the last few years in treatment. I know some of you might be thinking hang on these people make the stuff, but the reality is they are the general public too and the general public in my experience have little understanding of melanoma, so it was a good opportunity to advise them what to watch out for, the Irish Cancer Society is actually going to visit the plant on Thursday to do a skin scanning service all part of healthy living week and tied in nicely with the start of Tafinlar production. More companies should follow suit!!

Up next was Glenn, he is in charge of the whole transfer process of the drug to Ireland, a big responsibility he explained to the staff what would be happening over the next 18 months or so and again the importance of Quality assurance was emphasised, there were two nice gentleman Alan and Suman from GSK Singapore in the front row listening intently they have come over to ensure a smooth transition.

I was up next and to be honest I had been told roughly 15 mins but I knew I’d be well over, its hard to condense your story and all you want to get across down, you always think of something relevant afterwards, I decided to stay sitting I’m not as professional as some at speaking and having to keep track of speech and slide clicker is much easier on a high stool I could have probably done with  my usual drink to steady myself but it was an entirely different high stool event yesterday.

I told my story as honestly as I could, its been 12 years since I was diagnosed so its been a long journey. I explained what Tafinlar and Mekinist had meant to me personally, bringing me back from the brink of death, last year and all it had allowed me to experience since, I told them what it’s really like to be a melanoma patient the physical but also the huge psychological toll it takes on a patient, as I explained I told them there is no way to fluffy this up and make it sound better than the reality is. I looked up and saw some people crying the guy from GSK was on the brink, I lost my place and thought I’m keeping my head down until I finish this and say what I came to say I needed to, not just for me but for all the patients in our groups. I told them exactly what patients want and need and about our friends in Eastern Europe who will not be forgotten about just cos we are doing OK. I was conscious all the time that my daughter who has never heard her mother speak like this and to such a big audience was listening too, along with my sister-in-law and my Godmother who had lost her own niece my cousin to Melanoma in 2011 just before these drugs became available, she was just 23 diagnosed at 17 the same age as my daughter is now, I know only too well the effect melanoma has on a family, it’s not just a mole it’s a big deal just like any other cancer, sometimes it lets you think your off the hook like it did to Jakki for 2 years and me for 12  I have even heard of someone having a reoccurrence after 39 years out from having the original mole removed. Never dismiss it as something trivial that can be just cut out 900 people get diagnosed each year in Ireland with 200 patients a year progressing to advanced stage 100 die each year and many are young vibrant, full of potential just like Jakki. Anyway they all stood up at the end and clapped so I must have done ok, they are a nice bunch of people down there and it’s good to see people happy in their work enviroment.

Me I’m now a slightly older patient than when first diagnosed but can’t claim wiser, and certainly don’t want to go anywhere soon unless it involves Daniel Craig a rope, and a lot of screaming, he’s the only man for the job. Keep an eye on that turbine we are on the way (well one can dream) unless you have his nimber seriously GIVE IT TO ME!!