Photo:

Vee Mitchell

Favourite Thing: I love growing cells, to be able to take a piece of tissue and by the following day have real cells from the brain or spinal cord growing in a culture dish…

My CV

Education:

The Plume School, Maldon (1976-1983), University of East London (1983-1988)

Qualifications:

BSc Applied Biology (Hons)

Work History:

National Institute Medical Research for 5 years and GlaxoSmithKline for 16 years

Current Job:

I test brand new substances designed by our chemists, on cells to see if they can be used as new medicines to treat pain.

Employer:

Convergence Pharmaceuticals

Me and my work

I work for a company that is trying to develop new medicines to treat pain without all the nasty side effects.

Pain is a symptom of  many different illnesses which makes it very difficult to treat as it has many difference causes.

There are currently many different pain killers (or analgesics as they are also known) available. Some don’t work very well and some have some quite nasty side effects. The company I work for is trying to find a completely new way of treating pain, hopefully without the side effects.

Pain messages are sent back to your brain, from the area affected by pain, through nerve fibres. There are lots of nerve fibres in your body sending messages back and forth to the brain, telling your body to do stuff (move, breath, heartbeat, digestion etc) and receiving information about what is around you (from eyes, ears, skin etc). Messages are sent along nerve fibres by something called an action potential (which is just a special name for a small change in voltage that moves along the nerve fibre  – a bit like a mexican wave – caused by changes in the concentration of ions (Na+, K+, Cl- mostly) in the cells that make up the nerve fibre. These changes in ion concentrations are caused by channels in the cell membranes opening and closing – known as Ion Channels.

In the nerve fibres that take pain messages back to the brain there are particular ion channels involved and we are trying to design new drugs which will block just these channels and therefore hopefully block the pain signals back to the brain.

This is done by firstly a team of chemists designing and making lots of new chemicals which they think will fit into and therefore block the ion channel. The biologists then take over. We have special cells which have been genetically engineered to contain the ion channel we are interested in. By a technique called electrophysiology we can measure the activity (opening and closing) of this ion channel and see if these new chemicals block it (stop it from working) and by how much. We can then tell the chemists “this drug worked really well” or “this one was not so good” and they can look at the structure of the drug (the shape of the chemical) and how well it worked and try and change the design to make it work better. So it continues until we have the best drug that we can find. It then has to have loads of other testing done on it to make sure it is safe before finally it will be tested on people that are in pain eg back pain to see if it works.

My Typical Day

It varies quite a bit but looking after the cells and testing the new drugs on them mostly.

The cells that we use for testing the drugs have to looked ater which takes up a couple of hours on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I run the experiments to test the new drugs 2 days a week. I’m currently setting a new drug testing experiment as well. Working for a small company there are lots of things that we have to do ourselves, so I also get involved with managing the lab, which can be ordering stuff, setting up a new storage system, doing safety assessments and designing modifications to our lab notebook software to name just a few. There is a great deal of flexibility about what you do when, which I love.

What I'd do with the money

I’d like to work with my local exploreSTEM group to develop a resource for schools to explain more about how the brain works (and how it goes wrong).

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Outgoing, bossy, a good listener

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Led Zeppelin

What is the most fun thing you've done?

That I can tell you – probably racing other horses across a stubble field last summer, all completely out of control

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To have enough money so my horse could come and live at home, to own a Harley Davidson motorcycle, to travel around the world.

What did you want to be after you left school?

Speech Therapist

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes – I was in the top class and at one point they were going to demote the whole class as we were all in trouble so often!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Been an author on a Nature paper is what I should say but I got much more of a thrill from developing a new assay when it worked for the first time!

Tell us a joke.

What happened to the cat who ate a ball of wool? She had mittens.

Other stuff

Work photos:

myimage1myimage2These pictures are the lab where I work. The one on the left show the main lab where all the electrophysiology is done and the one on the right shows the special equipment we use to handle the cells in – they stop the cells becoming infected from all the bacteria in the air and that I may be carrying on my clothes/skin.

myimage4myimage5These pictures are some of the cells I have grown which come from the brain. The black and white picture shows some nerve cells and the green and black one shows another cell type from the brain called microglia (they are involved in fighting infections in the brain) – they aren’t really bright green, they have been stained in a special way that only works on microglial cells.

myimage6 This diagram shows the different types of pain there are. We aim to try and treat number 2 (inflammatory) and number 4 (neuropathic) as these are the ones that there are millions of people across the world who suffer, and where there is no treatment that works really well.