First inspiration: learning how biology moves on so quickly
From the moment I became a scientist I wanted to do something that made a difference.
It’s about doing something that has a clear application in medicine and changes people’s lives for the better.
History didn’t excite me at school, and I was bottom of my class in languages. Biology, chemistry and physics fascinated me however. I found I excelled in sciences, and won a school prize and a prize in a national schools physics competition.
I remember my biology teacher appearing excited in class one day, waving a copy of Nature magazine and telling us an entire section of our textbook was wrong. Science had moved on. It excited me that a field we had been learning about could move on so quickly.
Working alongside experienced ‘drug hunters’
I gained a degree in biochemistry from Bath and a PhD in neuroscience from Cambridge. I was keen to work in the discovery of new medicines and landed my first job in the neuropharmacology department at Glaxo in Ware.
At Glaxo, I was lucky to work with inspirational and experienced ‘drug hunters’ Pat Humphrey and Mike Tyers. They really changed the lives of huge numbers of people: Pat discovered one of the first drugs for migraine, sumatriptan, and Mike discovered ondansetron, the drug everyone on chemotherapy now takes to stop them feeling sick.
Glaxo gave me great grounding to start Heptares
The knowledge and skills you gain from working for a large company such as Glaxo give you a great grounding for starting your own company. You are challenged at times, and there are also great opportunities.
While I was on maternity leave, there was a reorganisation at Glaxo. I moved from the neuropharmacology department to a group working on the molecular aspects of a family of proteins called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). They sit on the outside of cells and about 30% of prescription drugs work through them.
This was an important change for me. I went on to lead the team and it ultimately led me to co-found Heptares, where I am now chief scientific officer.
Balancing career and family
Of course, challenges don’t just come in the work environment. Balancing a successful career with family life is not always easy. At one point, I found myself travelling to the US twice a month when my children were four and six.
It is possible to have children and have a career and you definitely need the support of those around you. Sometimes you need extra help with the children, and sometimes you need to reduce workload to spend more time with them.
At this point I decided to take a break from work. However, I didn’t stop completely. I began working as a consultant and built up a portfolio of biotech and venture capital companies, for which I worked on focused projects or joined advisory boards.
Consultancy gave me flexibility
For five years I was looking at business start-up plans or sorting out problems. It taught me a huge amount about starting and running a business and about what can go wrong.
If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to:
gain experience working with as many companies of different types as you can before going it alone.
Heptares: now one of the most successful biotech companies in the UK
I set up Heptares in 2006 with Malcolm Weir, then at the medical research charity MRC Technology. We aimed to take advantage of a new technology developed at MRC that allows GPCR proteins to be crystallised and for information on the 3D shape of the proteins to be used when designing new drugs.
We’ve grown to employ nearly 100 staff and licensed one of our first drug candidates to AstraZeneca in 2015, where it is being developed for the treatment of cancer.
We are now seen as one of the most successful biotech companies in the UK.
Next step: longevity, growth and mentoring the next generation
In 2015 we became part of the Japanese biopharmaceutical company Sosei. It’s given us long-term financial stability and the potential to grow into a global drug discovery and development organisation.
I’m really optimistic about the future.
What I love is being able to invest in and advance UK science. We offer training to school and university students, and work with universities, their PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. I’m excited about working with the exceptional young scientists – men and women – we’ve attracted to our business from around the world.
Ultimate goal: develop drugs that reach patients in need
I’m proud of what we have achieved, but the greatest reward will come when drugs we’ve designed to treat Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, migraine and cancer make it to patients, and make their lives better.
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