Tea with Professor Patrick Vallance: the UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science 2017
By Guest Blogger, on 6 November 2017
On the 31st October, the UCL MB PhD Students, at the early stages of their careers as academic clinicians, were fortunate to have tea with Professor Patrick Vallance, who delivered the UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science later that evening. This lecture series, running annually for over twenty years, is an eminent event for communicating contemporary translational science.
Professor Vallance reflected upon his first foray into medical science, recalling his decision to undertake an intercalated BSc during undergraduate medicine, despite being advised that doctors did not need such science degrees. He chose to enter the scientific environment, and now leads research and development for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Professor Vallance completed his medical degree at St. George’s Medical School in London, close to where he would remain for his clinical training. By 1995, he was recruited to UCL as a Professor of Clinical Pharmacology, and shortly after became Head of the Division of Medicine.
He made fundamental discoveries regarding the function of nitric oxide in the human cardiovascular system, and elucidated key principles pertinent to the physiology and pharmacology of blood vessels.
Throughout this period, he maintained a fierce dedication to delivering the best possible care for patients. It was this clinical drive that led him, initially, to turn down a career opportunity in GlaxoSmithKline. After thoughtful reflection during his daily bicycle ride home, however, he changed his mind. In 2012, he became head of Research and Development at GSK, and has since spearheaded the development of therapies for cancer, asthma, autoimmune disease and HIV.
During this year’s UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science, Professor Vallance highlighted ‘four things to think about when trying to make a medicine’. These were: the target, the molecule, the biological evidence for the therapy, and its clinical value and effect.
He conveyed the challenges of the drug development process, particularly its duration and cost efficiency; with millions being spent over decades, yet only four in every hundred medicines being successfully taken from concept through to patient care.
However, there were several success stories from the drug development pipeline highlighted during the lecture.
These included the use of findings in a very rare inflammatory disease, to identify a drug target that promises efficacy in a range of much more common inflammatory conditions, as well as an example of where biological understanding of disease subtypes allowed successful application of a novel therapeutic in difficult to manage asthma.
One of his messages was about a push towards the open dissemination of experimental data from the drug development process.
Despite the perceived conflict with intellectual property and business models, Professor Vallance showed that making scientific and clinical data publically available provides the opportunity for external individuals to find results that others may not.
One example he described was the unconventional and pioneering development of combining these data with gaming software, which led to a solution for a decade-old problem concerning the folding of an HIV protein, all within the space of three weeks.
Professor Vallance also spoke of the rise of cell and gene therapies, whereby cells and genes can be delivered to patients to definitively and permanently cure diseases previously considered untreatable. Together, the factors discussed in his lecture will herald a new era: rather than simply treating diseases, cures will become more commonplace. Healthcare systems will have to reform and adapt to this change.
During tea with the MB PhD students, Professor Vallance showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the students’ work, exploring each participants’ research project and interests.
This generated considerable discussion, ranging from the career path as an academic clinician; to comparisons between the pharmaceutical industry, academia and the clinical world; through to changes to drug development post-Brexit. He stressed the importance of practicing with an evidence-base in medicine, and how this was the answer for today’s clinical practice (not tomorrow’s).
He left us with some important life and career guidance. First, listen to advice from others, without necessarily letting their opinions hinder progress or aims. Second, find a good mentor, who understands both the academic and personal perspectives to give unbiased and unsolicited advice. Third, enjoy what you do, and do what you enjoy.
These lessons are applicable far beyond science and medicine, and were learned over a lifetime dedicated to the benefit of patients and advancement of healthcare.