Sad to leave, glad I did IAS though
St Mary’s RC Primary Walthamstow, 1960-66; Ursuline High School Ilford, 1967-73
Kings College London BSc 1974-77, PhD 1977-80.
Cardiothoracic Institute, then the National Heart and Lung Institute London, now part of Imperial College
Professor of Cardiac Pharmacology
I’m interested in the beating muscle cells (myocytes) of the heart and what happens to them in heart failure
I’m working to see why the heart fails, and what we can do about it. Heart failure is different from a heart attack. It happens gradually after the heart has been damaged – this can be after a heart attack, but also genetic diseases, infections, drug or alcohol effects will cause some cells to die. This loss of beating heart muscle triggers further deterioration of heart function, until people can no longer walk and are gasping for breath even lying down. I wanted to see whether the muscle cells (myocytes) that were left in the heart were all working well (in which case we need to add back more cells) or were beating weakly (in which case we can boost their performance to get extra work from the heart). I invented a way to get single myocytes out of failing human heart (which we get when there is a transplant) make them beat in a Petri dish and record their strength of beating. I also use rat and mouse models to test my theories in a way that can’t be done with people. Here is a picture of a myocyte and you can see them beating in a video on my website http://www1.imperial.ac.uk/medicine/about/divisions/nhli/cardio/heart/molcell/fm/
I found that they were not beating well, and helped to identify one of the proteins causing this – SERCA2a. I’m now involved in clinical trials to use gene therapy (with a common virus) to add back the gene to produce more SERCA2a in the heart cell. I’m also using stem cells to try to create more myocytes. We can now make beating human myocytes in the lab – this is also on my website. At first we used human embryonic stem cells for this, but now other scientists have made similar cells from skin and we are starting to test those. Its quite difficult to get these new myocytes into patient’s hearts and we are now trying to think of the best way to do this. Choosing the right cell and making it safe are our biggest challenges at the moment.
My Typical Day:
Organising and analysing the experimental work of the 12 scientists and students in the lab
Now I’m a Professor, I don’t get to work at the lab bench very much. I have a range of scientists in my laboratory, from young undergraduates doing a short project, to graduates who are doing a 3 year project to get their PhD (doctorate) and experienced people who obtained their PhD up to 10 years ago. I co-operate with many colleagues who are at a similar grade to me, and who also have groups of scientists working for them. On many days I will go to my office, which is next to the lab and to the desks of my group, and talk to people about the results of experiments done in the last few days. Together we will look at the graphs or pictures and try to interpret the results. Then we will design further experiments to test our theories, or solve the technical problems we have come across. Its not as planned and controlled as that might sound, and you have to take account of things like peoples personalities, who gets on with who, what you can afford or what you can beg someone else to give you or lend you. Sometimes we have a complicated schedule planned, and then there is a sudden call because a transplant is going on. My most important task now is getting the money to keep the lab going, which I do by writing grants to places like the Medical Research Council and the British Heart Foundation. I also have to decide when we have enough experimental support for a theory to be able to write a scientific paper about our results for publishing in a journal, and then write or correct this. Both the grants and the papers are judged by other scientists, and both are often rejected if they are thought to be not good enough (or too boring!!). The average rate of acceptance is about one in four or five for grants, which means that you have to write to a high standard, and often alter your plans after the criticisms of the other scientists. Since this money is needed to keep the salaries of the scientists in my lab, this is a big responsibility. I also get to travel quite a lot to give talks about our work: this year I have been to France, Germany, Norway and Japan. I try to get the people in the lab to at least one scientific meeting aboard every year, as this is a great aspect of the job.
What I'd do with the prize money:
Use it to fund some 6th form students to work for the summer in my lab
We can take people over 16 for 2-8 weeks work in the lab during the summer. I’d use the money to pay their fares or give them some travel money to take their results to a scientiifc meeting
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Independent, curious, resilient
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, but mostly they didnt find out the worst stuff
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Flown in a helicopter over New York
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
My daughter and husband to be happy and healthy, to show my theory about the beta2 receptor was true, thin thighs
Tell us a joke.
Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker – “Son, I know what you are getting for Christmas”. Luke says “how is that”. Darth replies “I have felt your presence”