Dr. Charles Birbara
Photo/Andy Weigl, Weigl Photography
By David Bagdon, Publisher
There are very few Americans who have not been touched by arthritis in some way. Whether it’s a parent, sibling, friend or for the many who suffer themselves, the disease is all around us. Currently one out of five adults has been officially diagnosed as having some form of arthritis. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of adults who will have the disease is expected to top 67 million within the next 15 years.
Although many believe that arthritis is a disease of the elderly, nearly two thirds of affected adults are under the age of 65. With statistics like this it’s not hard to see why Dr. Charles Birbara, one of the state’s leading rheumatologists and arthritis researchers, is a very busy man.
After receiving his bachelor of science degree in biology cum laude from Harvard University in 1958, Birbara went on to complete his medical degree in 1962. Six years later, after two years in the U.S. Army as a captain, Birbara became immersed in the study and treatment of arthritis. He’s been an associate professor of medicine and staff physician at the respected University of Massachusetts Medical School In Worcester for the past 27 years.
After learning of his resume, the natural question is what drove him to place such emphasis on the treatment and study of arthritis?
According to Bibara, he became influenced early on by one of his professors at Northwestern University.
“While at Northwestern, one of my professors was a well-known pioneer in rheumatology and he challenged me with many complex cases which I found fascinating. A short time later I was serving in the Vietnam War and ran into many soldiers who were suffering from joint problems; this also got me very interested,” he said. “Following my time in the Army I returned to a fellowship at Northwestern and began studying joint diseases.”
Committed to helping patients deal with the effects of arthritis, Birbara’s typical schedule involves seeing patients some 10 hours per day. Although most are from Massachusetts, it is not unusual for him to see patients from two and even three states away. Although his reputation is based in large part on the immense experience he has had treating patients, he is also known as a much respected researcher in the field having been the principal investigator on some 500 clinical research protocols.
To satisfy his interest in research, Birbara heads the Clinical Pharmacology Study Group. At any given time, the company is enrolling test participants and conducting drug trials on a dozen or more specific ailments and treatment protocols.
If there is a recurring theme to Birbara’s career path, it is a nearly insatiable desire to help people live their lives fully with as little pain and restriction as possible. When asked of a particular case that stood out in his mind, Birbara recalled a story of a very active man who was severely restricted by pain.
“…this patient, who was a well-known pastor, was barely able to walk and it took him 15 minutes to get into the office from the parking lot. Nearly 20 years ago I was able to enter him in an early clinical trial for Humira. After a period of time in the placebo group without improvement, we reentered him into the study where he received the actual drug and he improved dramatically in only two days, ultimately becoming pain-free,” he said.
This is the very type of success story that keeps Birbara motivated to not only help today’s patients but also to pursue new treatments and medications that will have an even greater benefit to patients in the future.
When asked about what exciting developments are on the horizon, Birbara hinted of two or three breakthrough drugs for the treatment of Rheumatoid arthritis, as well biologic agents that target specific molecules and can be tailored to address certain problems such as excessive uric acid.
Add to this the advances to joint replacement therapy and the future is looking much brighter for arthritis sufferers than ever before.
And that realization is something that brings Charlie Birbara a great deal of pride after more than five decades battling this disease.
“I’d like to think my legacy is in the number of patients I’ve been able to help over the past 50 years,” he said. “It is so gratifying to know that we can now provide treatments that will produce profound improvements that will allow patients to lead happy and healthy lives.”