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From four legs to two: a journey from animal health to human health
  1. Aoibhinn McDonnell


After qualifying, Aoibhinn McDonnell gained a Masters and a PhD. She has worked in research, small animal practice and industry. She now works in early stage drug development

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I GRADUATED from University College Dublin with a degree in veterinary medicine. As an undergraduate, I'd been awarded a Wellcome Summer Studentship at the Moredun Institute, which enabled me to not only discover Edinburgh's cultural highlights, but to build on a strong interest in research.

I went back to Edinburgh after graduation, to work as a demonstrator (combined intern/resident role) in large animal medicine and reproduction at the Royal (Dick) veterinary school. It was one of the best experiences of my career, and gave me the opportunity to work with very dedicated, skilled clinicians, teaching talented veterinary students. I realised I wanted to pursue a research degree and obtained my Masters and PhD degrees at the University of Glasgow. My PhD gave me an opportunity to work in a dynamic multidisciplinary environment, training in parasite molecular genetics and phylogenetics. This led to a postdoctoral position in the Division of Molecular Genetics at the university. I was able to transfer molecular biology skills from my PhD to work on Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder, primarily affecting girls, caused by a mutation in the MECP2 gene on the X chromosome. Affected children develop apparently normally from birth to approximately six months old. Subsequently, following a period of developmental stagnation, they regress developmentally and are profoundly handicapped. I worked on the correlation of genotype to phenotype in Rett syndrome and had the privilege to meet some patients and their families during that time.

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On completion of that work, I made a practical decision to return to veterinary medicine and retrained as a companion animal veterinarian, with help from veterinary friends and colleagues. After two to three years in practice in Glasgow, I moved to Clermont Ferrand, France. I worked as a locum in companion animal practice and learned that the French love their pets as much as the British do. I spoke less-than-fluent French to start with, but it improved rapidly, out of necessity. It was a very interesting, challenging experience, not least due to differences in certain surgical procedures compared to the UK, but also the difference in availability of veterinary medicines. I realised however, that I didn't want to own my own veterinary practice, which would have been the next step as a veterinarian in France.

From practice to industry

While in France, I applied for a clinical position in Pfizer Animal Health, UK. It was my ideal combination of science and clinical challenges, working on proof of concept studies in companion animals. In conjunction with clinical pharmacologists and statisticians, I was responsible for the design, conduct and reporting of these studies to the standards of good clinical practice (GCP), an internationally recognised standard for clinical trial conduct. I worked with veterinary schools in the UK and US, carrying out clinical trials in several therapeutic areas with clinicians and specialists, within Pfizer and externally.

After three highly enjoyable years, I realised I wanted to learn how to register veterinary medicines. This led me to a Regulatory Manager role in Pfizer Animal Health. I enjoyed working in a multidisciplinary environment, learning the requirements for the safety, quality and efficacy components of a regulatory dossier. Building regulatory dossiers demands scientific rigour and attention to detail. A veterinary degree is not a prerequisite for a regulatory role, but it's definitely advantageous when working on development projects, in understanding data from preclinical (laboratory animal) safety studies and clinical efficacy trials. I learned about the manufacture of veterinary medicines and issues related to quality (good manufacturing practice), Regulations and Directives and where to find them. I enjoyed interacting with regulatory agencies and writing clinical expert statements for established products.

Current role

I decided last year to move out of my comfort zone, and undertake new challenges. I had been looking at opportunities to return to a clinical post and made the leap into human health. I obtained a clinician position in the Pain Clinical Group at Pfizer Neusentis, in Cambridge, working in early stage drug development (Phase 1-2a). In this role, I am responsible for design of proof of mechanism studies in healthy volunteers and proof of concept studies in patients, monitoring the safety of subjects in those studies, with medical oversight, interfacing with internal and external partners to develop new methodologies and interacting with key opinion leaders. It is hugely challenging but very exciting to work at the cutting edge of science and medicine; and it is a privilege to work on clinical studies to try to develop new medicines to alleviate both acute and chronic pain.

As veterinarians, we have the training to understand disease pathophysiology, clinical thought processes, medicine and treatment of disease. In human drug development, translation from animals to humans is frequently neither reliable nor predictable, posing huge challenges for the development of new medicines. The strong science background obtained in my veterinary degree training and postgraduate research enables me to understand the science from molecule to whole organism and its translation from bench to bedside.

The future

Industry has proven to be a highly stimulating and dynamic environment for me, and I've had the opportunity to work with some fantastic people who are very skilled and passionate about their work to improve the health of animals and people. I am on a constant learning path, continuing to develop my knowledge and understanding of the neurobiology, pathophysiology and treatment of pain. From time to time I pause to reflect on how I arrived at where I am and where I'm going career-wise. It's impossible to predict what will happen in the very fast moving and volatile pharmaceutical industry. One of my colleagues described himself as a ‘knowledge nomad’ and that is very true in industry and science careers. We strive for a balance between following the work and pursuing our interests, and trying to ensure some stability for our families. I have been very fortunate that, due to the diversity, quality and flexibility of a veterinary medical training, I've been able to pursue what I am interested in.

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