Executive Vice President, Global Head of R&D - Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
|Dr Martin Mackay
|PhD in Molecular Genetics (Dept. of Microbiology)
|Postdoc in Molecular Biology
|Year of Graduation
|Executive Vice President, Global Head of R&D – Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
|President of Research and Development, AstraZeneca
|President of Global Research and Development, Pfizer
|I had many positions over this period and ended up President of Pharmatherapeutics
What made you chose The University of Edinburgh for a PhD?
The opportunity to work at a University which was truly at the cutting edge of molecular biology and genetics research at the time was a very strong pull factor.
By the time I started my PhD I had already been working in industry for 18 months after completing my degree in Microbiology at Heriot-Watt University. The company I worked for was based in Surrey and the main business was attempting to create novel antibiotics. It really struck me how old fashioned the techniques being used were. I had family connections to Edinburgh, but aside from that the opportunity to work at a University which was truly at the cutting edge of molecular biology and genetics research at the time was a very strong pull factor.
There was one campus (King’s Buildings) on which you had access to a fantastic array of scientific equipment and expertise. Giants of the field such as John Scaife, Ed Southern (creator of the Southern Blot technique for identifying DNA sequences) and Ken and Noreen Murray, who invented the very first recombinant DNA vaccine for Hepatitis B, were still active at Edinburgh when I started there - and the School as a whole had a great research background and ethos. They say the students have to work hard - but nobody worked harder than John, Ed and the Murrays.
Did you receive funding as a PhD student?
I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I was funded. I received a grant from what was then the Science and Engineering Research Council, as well as a small extra grant from somewhere because I had previously worked in industry. I realise now how fortunate I was to have been learning at a time when these kinds of things were available as I wouldn’t have been able to self-fund in those days.
What made you stay for a postdoc appointment at Edinburgh? Did you feel you were contributing to an important body of work?
I knew I wanted to work in new drug discovery so getting to experience a lab which was actively working towards a vaccine for malaria was very exciting.
Without a doubt. The chance to work on malaria at The University of Edinburgh was a great opportunity to work alongside some great scientists on a very serious problem, so when the opening came up in John Scaife’s lab I was very happy to take it. John was a great scientist and a strong influence on my career and the way I work. I knew I wanted to work in new drug discovery so getting to experience a lab which was actively working towards a vaccine for malaria was very exciting. There’s still no vaccine for malaria today, which gives you a sense of the challenge we were up against in the mid 80s, but we carried out some great work into the critical problems associated with the disease.
Another great facet to the postdoc position was the opportunity to work with (Swiss pharmaceuticals company) Hoffman la-Roche, with whom the lab were collaborating at the time. I always knew I wanted to head back into the drug discovery sector so the opportunity to gain industry experience, as well as some nice trips to Switzerland, was excellent.
You made a conscious decision to move into the private sector. How did you go about doing it?
I knew that I wanted to work in drug discovery by using molecular biology and there were only a handful of companies engaged in that sort of work at the time. I simply targeted this small number of blue-chip companies and looked for openings. In the end I managed to secure a position with Ciba-Geigy in the UK and my career progressed from there. In 1993 I was asked to be the Head of Molecular and Cell Biology in Neuroscience research at their headquarters in Basel, Switzerland until my move to Pfizer in 1995.
What have been your career highlights so far?
When I was at Pfizer we developed a new medication for HIV which is still in use today.
I can honestly say that the high points for me are when the group you lead discover a new medicine and successfully transfer it into the public domain. I can’t, by any means, take the credit for drugs that have been discovered by teams working under me, but I have been lucky enough to work with some brilliant researchers over the course of my career and some of the work that has been done by teams that I had the privilege to lead has had a tremendous impact on the quality of life for people around the world.
When I was at Pfizer we developed a new medication for HIV which is still in use today. It’s called Selzentry (the generic name is Maraviroc) and it was the first HIV drug which attacked the host rather than the virus. Selzentry was the culmination of 10 years of hard work by notable scientists such as Tony Wood, Manos Perros and Steve Felstead and research by a lot of people so it was tremendously satisfying when it was found to be successful and given approval for market.
Do you think your career trajectory is one which is still open to students graduating from Biological Sciences at Edinburgh today?
Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, has a great track record of producing brilliant scientists and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t continue to be the case. It’s a great shame that the amount of pharmaceuticals jobs in the UK has reduced significantly over recent years, but if graduates are willing to stay mobile there are still some excellent opportunities out there for them.
Absolutely. I travel all over the world with my job and I am continually amazed at the number of Scots who are working in the pharmaceutical industry in all kinds of areas. Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, has a great track record of producing brilliant scientists and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t continue to be the case. It’s a great shame that the amount of pharmaceuticals jobs in the UK has reduced significantly over recent years, but if graduates are willing to stay mobile there are still some excellent opportunities out there for them.
What advice would you give to the Biological Sciences students of today?
Obviously, stay mobile in terms of your willingness to move for a position you want, but also stay mobile in terms of your skill set. I often say to people that I can’t guarantee them job security, but I can help them gain security of employability by ensuring that they have the opportunities to widen their skill set within their area of expertise. That’s a hugely important thing to do in today’s job market.
Having said that, you shouldn’t expect to have your career or skills developed without asking for it. You are the best person to develop your own career so make sure you are active in doing so. I can’t remember ever having turned down a sensible request by someone who has independently identified a training activity which will benefit themselves and the company.