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From vet degree to vice-president of R&D
  1. Ruth Lightfoot-Dunn

Abstract

Ruth Lightfoot-Dunn vividly remembers her first day at vet school, as it was ‘a huge milestone’ in her ambition to be a practising equine vet. Had someone told her at the time that her veterinary degree would lead to the role of vice-president of R&D in the largest healthcare biotechnology company in the world, she would have insisted this would never happen. Here, she explains how it did

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AS a child, I always loved animals. I buried dead birds, longed for a cat, dog, pony – anything with four feet – and dutifully nurtured the school hamster during holidays. My parents and grandparents were scientists and engineers, as are my siblings, and so scientific learning was taken for granted and educational opportunities were rich. My intense drive and focus was to gain a place at the Royal Veterinary College, London, and so I was delighted when my place was secured.

Our first years were filled with studies of anatomy, histology, biochemistry, pharma-cology, physiology and much more, and I was entranced by anatomy and physiology in particular, since they were clearly critical components of a veterinarian's education. How I wish I had paid more attention during biochemistry, immunology and pharmacology though – it would have served me very well in the intervening years!

In the clinical studies that followed, my interests shifted into surgery. After graduation, I accepted a position as house surgeon at the RVC's Beaumont Animal Hospital, under Churchill Frost's pragmatic eye. A happy year followed, learning how to apply much that we had studied, followed by a short spell in general practice in London.

Change of plan

Having achieved my goal of being a practising vet, I began to ask ‘What next?’. At this point my career path took a critical change in direction. On a visit to the RVC I met with Peter Bedford, one of the founders of modern veterinary ophthalmology, to discuss opportunities for further education. Since I had enjoyed ophthalmology as an undergraduate, I indicated my interest in pursuing a PhD with him. In these days of restricted funding and onerous grant application processes, it seems almost miraculous in hindsight that, within a very short time, I was a full-time PhD student developing a plan of work to investigate retinal pigment epithelial dystrophy in the briard dog as a potential model of retinitis pigmentosa in human beings.

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I was also extremely fortunate to make early contact with a group headed by Mike Boulton at the Institute of Ophthalmology, London, which enabled me to pursue various in vitro models and endpoints to better characterise the disease. Mike is a gifted scientist, and currently Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Florida. In my student days, his lab was a natural stopping-off point for physicians pursuing research projects as part of their training at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. For the first time, I really began to enjoy interacting with scientists from different disciplines with different ideas. I learned the creative side of hypothesis generation and testing, as well as how to apply the scientific method. Alongside my PhD studies, I gained my certificate in veterin-ary ophthalmology. I was convinced that a career in veterinary ophthalmology was now the right goal.

A delightful interlude followed, as I began working in a second-opinion ophthalmology practice in the north of England. My lasting memories of this period are of time spent in my native northern England in attendance at sheepdog trials, certifying for the International Sheep Dog Association, and meeting delightful people and their incredibly obedient and intelligent working dogs – it was an idyllic time.

Another change of plan

To my surprise, I found myself applying for a trainee pathologist position at Ciba-Geigy near Manchester, just to see what it was like, and in search of a predictable income. Ironically, my least favourite topic at vet school (pathology) soon became my greatest interest and the path to my current position. Pathology is a lot like forensic medicine.Clues to ‘the murder’ are scattered around, waiting for an educated mind to place the pieces together, read the puzzle and make a diagnosis. This challenge became a real attraction for me. There is much that can be debated about the pros and cons of the pharmaceutical industry and animal toxicity testing in the cause of improving human health, but this industry gave me my real passion – pursuit of science – and a means to follow it. After studying primate pathology with Paul Skelton-Stroud, I moved to Glaxo Group Research. With gifted help from my longstanding friend and colleague, Andrew Pilling, I began to study in earnest for membership of the Royal College of Pathologists. At Glaxo, I was part of a multidisciplinary team that sought to characterise the safety of potential new medicines before, during and after trials in human volunteers and patients.

At the same time, my passion for travel grew. A visit to Yemen in the early 1990s led circuitously to further travel in South America, where I met my Australian husband and lifelong soulmate.

Learning in business

Company mergers have presented many opportunities to lead through difficult times and understanding motivation and employee engagement is critical. Through it all, I gradually learned about the highly complex process of drug discovery and development, and about the regulatory policies that determine much of how this is conducted. My experience led me to join, and eventually chair, the PhRMA Preclinical Safety Leadership Group, an industry-wide group in the USA that, among many activities, engages with the leadership of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the group that governs drug approval in the USA. This work ultimately led to my membership of an international expert working group, representing USA industry. That group's task was to write new guidance for industry in preclinical development of biotechnology-derived products.

The mentorship of Ron Tyler was of great help to me at the time. A DVM, PhD, board-certified in both anatomic pathology and clinical pathology, Ron is one of the best ‘thinkers’ I have ever met. He taught me a critical leadership lesson that I have practised and applied many times over: this was to find the best in every employee and believe that they are trying their hardest to fulfil the demands of their role until proven otherwise!

Distant shores

In 1996 my career took another unexpected turn after Glaxo Group Research acquired Burroughs Wellcome. There was a shortage of pathologists in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. My husband and I saw an opportunity to experience a different culture and live in a beautiful state. I volunteered to relocate to the USA. A two-year assignment rapidly turned into permanent relocation and increasing opportunity as Glaxo Wellcome merged with SmithKlineBeecham to become GlaxoSmithKline. I became director of pathology and began the never-ending process of learning how to lead and manage other people as well as delivering good science.

In 2004, while a vice-president in GlaxoSmithKline, a call came that changed our lives yet again. I was asked to lead the preclinical safety group in Amgen, one of the darlings of the biotech industry. So, I added ‘living in southern California’ as another tick on the list of ‘things I said I would never do’, and today we call this wonderful, diverse state our home.

Current role

As vice-president of comparative biology and safety sciences in Amgen, I lead a group of nearly 300 scientists and technicians. Our goal is to better understand the safety profile of the company portfolio at as early a stage as possible. Estimates of attrition or ‘drop-out’ of experimental drugs before registration due to unexpected safety side effects can reach 20 per cent after the timepoint at which a novel drug is chosen for testing in clinical trials in human beings, and this represents tremendous ‘futile’ expenditure and effort. The earlier undesirable effects can be discovered, the more effective the use of a company's R&D budget.

Today, the tools at our disposal for attacking this problem are cutting-edge and varied. They range from genomic profiling of tissues to novel biochemical assays, and from massive integrated data analysis to traditional histopathology. Such tools have brought us notable successes.

Amgen focuses on medicines for serious human diseases – cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, immune-mediated diseases – and develops both traditional small molecules (small white pills) and biologics (injectable monoclonal antibodies and recombinant proteins), so the diversity of research is high and, accordingly, the tools available to study biology are multiple and complex.

The challenge of delivering new medicines is intense, but the satisfaction of knowing that human health is improved by our work is very real, and this work frequently takes me back to most of the disciplines we absorbed in vet school as well as much learned along the way. The integrative skills acquired at first during my veterinary education and subsequently during specialisation in pathology are extremely valuable for this type of research, where we are attempting to understand the effects of novel drugs at the cellular and molecular level in various species and models to then extrapolate this knowledge into the context of patients with serious diseases.

The future

The current phase of my career is ‘giving back’ – mentoring and developing the next generation of scientists – while striving for that elusive work-life balance. The latter is made easier by pursuing a lifelong goal to compete in dressage, and by finding time to travel to some of the quieter, out-of-the-way places on our planet.

Throughout it all though, I frequently reflect on the path that brought me to my chosen discipline. I'm grateful for the strong foundation veterinary medicine and surgery have given me. I appreciate the value and luck of taking a sidetrack into ophthalmology, which ultimately led me to specialise in pathology and drug development. It's a combination of general and specialised training that has proven to be somewhat unique, but ideally suited for the role that I fill today. However, some skills have been lost along the way, and so, while I give my dog his worm tablets, if he requires more attention I comply with the request to take him to ‘a real vet’ …

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I've followed what interested me most at any time, enjoying the journey as much as the destination, and in return have worked with outstanding scientists and leaders to make a difference in the lives of patients with serious diseases – I could not ask for more.

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