These first-hand accounts, from some of the most pioneering figures of modern pharmacology provide an enlightening view of contemporary biomedicine. From those who developed anti-depressants and anti-arrhythmics to those who discovered previously unidentified neurotransmitters, it is almost impossible to quantify the treatments that were advanced, fatal diseases cured, medical accidents prevented, and lives saved through their work.
As these pharmacologists testify, developing a new medical treatment is not a straightforward or linear process, and their journeys encompassed often long and meandering educational careers littered with successes, disappointments, and serendipity.
In a career spanning over half a century, Professor Jeffrey Aronson’s reflections on his career illustrate the potential for physicians to experience a set of diverse academic and clinical outlets. As an early specialist in the then ‘up-and-coming’ field of clinical pharmacology, he contributed greatly to the understanding of anti-arrhythmics and adverse drug reactions. His engaging articles in the British Medical Journal on medical language are renowned in the profession.
After receiving a DPhil and a DSc in Pharmacology from Oxford, Dr Mick Bakhle joined the Royal College of Surgeons in 1965, working with John Vane on the revolutionary study of angiotensin converting enzyme and aspirin. An Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, he has also been Senior/Press Editor of the British Journal of Pharmacology.
Leaving school with just a few O-levels, Dr Tom Blackburn went on to lead the teams who developed revolutionary treatments for conditions as diverse as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and epilepsy. With a career largely spent in industry, he has held senior-level positions in ICI Pharmaceuticals plc, Beecham Pharmaceuticals plc and SmithKline Beecham in the UK, and two biotech companies in the USA.
Beginning with experiments on fish guts, neuroscientist Professor Geoffrey Burnstock’s career in research has been far from typical. He discusses, for example, how his discoveries on the neurotransmitter action of ATP were not widely accepted by the scientific community for years; since then, this research has gone on to affect treatment for conditions as varied as incontinence, pain, stroke and thrombosis.
Having spent his early career in the pharmaceutical industry, Professor Rod Flower went on to achieve great success in academic research, especially at the renowned William Harvey Research Institute, and serving as President of the British Pharmacological Society. He was a pivotal figure in researching the use of steroids in inflammation, and in the mechanism of aspirin.
Having spent his career ‘hooked’ on neuropharmacology, Professor Richard Green has worked in both industry, as Director of the Astra Neuroscience Research Unit in London, and in academic research at the University of Nottingham. His main contributions include the elucidation of many mechanisms of 5HT, and he was closely associated with both the Serotonin Club and British Association of Psychopharmacology, earning him the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the latter.
Recalling that his dream ‘was always to discover a drug’, Professor Pat Humphrey led the research team that discovered sumatriptan, a revolutionary compound that has transformed the treatment of migraine. Expanding his role in industry, he went on to discover more blockbuster drugs as Director of the Glaxo Division of Pharamacology.
A neuro-pharmacologist for over 40 years, Professor Charles Marsden has explored the links between behaviour and the brain, and the causes and potential treatments of mental health disorders. In these interviews, he also discusses his research on the effects of environmental pressures on the developing brains of rats; findings which are echoed in humans. In 2013, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Association of Psychopharmacology.
The anti-emetic drugs that Wes Miner worked on during his time at Beecham Pharamaceuticals, such as metoclopramide and granisteron, are routinely used for the prevention of nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. As an in-vivo researcher, he emphasises the importance of understanding basic physiology, as well as designing rigorous trials, for achieving a high standard of performance in the biomedical research industry.
At the Wellcome Research Laboratory, Professor Salvador Moncada’s work on nitric oxide as a vasodilator has had wide-ranging implications for the drugs used in almost every medical specialty, from heart attack prevention, and inflammatory diseases to erectile dysfunction. A Director of the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, he also worked in industry and stresses the importance of inter-professional sharing and open communication between the academic and business worlds.
Trained as a doctor, Professor Alan North’s fascination with physics diverted his career to experimental science. By elucidating the mechanism of dopamine reward in the brain, he opened up potential avenues of research into drug addiction. A former Dean at the University of Manchester’s faculties of Life Sciences/Medical and Human Sciences, he held professorships in the US and the UK, and served as Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Pharmacology.
After being awarded his PhD and DSc in physiology at Manchester University, Professor Gareth Sanger went on to research new drug targets, leading to the development of several innovative drugs. These included novel anti-emetics, for which he was jointly awarded the 1998 Discoverers Award by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Having published more than 150 papers, he teaches neuropharmacology at Queen Mary University of London and is an adviser for GI research within the pharmaceutical industry.
Author of ground-breaking book The Biology of Cholinesterases (1974), physiologist Dr Ann Silver’s research led to the development of anti-cholinergic drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Her recollections in these video interviews demonstrate how the power of resilience, to institutionalised sexism, for example, and her passion for science built a career against the odds.