THE YEAR THAT + QUIZ Pro­fes­sor Mar­garet Brim­ble

Pro­fes­sor Mar­garet Brim­ble, 56, re­calls her move to Auck­land and the de­vel­op­ments that changes to uni­ver­sity fund­ing in­spired

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - As told to Paul Lit­tle.

Ihad been work­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney when I ac­cepted an of­fer to come to Auck­land as Pro­fes­sor of Or­ganic Chem­istry in 1999. In Syd­ney, I had a great re­search group, we were well funded and the group was per­form­ing ex­tremely well. I moved my lab, my house and my life and turned up in Jan­uary with my baby daugh­ter, who had been born the year be­fore.

But be­tween ac­cept­ing the of­fer and start­ing work, bud­gets had been cut and there had been staff losses. When I got here, un­der­grad­u­ate num­bers were low and there were no re­search stu­dents. There­fore, I took a big deep breath and thought: “I’ll have to re­build ev­ery­thing from scratch.”

I in­tro­duced a new in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary de­gree in Medic­i­nal Chem­istry, which com­bines chem­istry with bi­ol­ogy rather than the tra­di­tional chem­istry and physics, which ap­peals to in­tend­ing med­i­cal stu­dents who don’t get into med­i­cal school. That brought in many stu­dents. I also had to build a post­grad­u­ate co­hort, which flowed from the large un­der­grad­u­ate num­bers.

How­ever, the thing that re­ally changed my life that year and which grew out of this was that in Auck­land there was a fund­ing model where aca­demics had to pay for the re­search costs of stu­dents, in­clud­ing the use of large, ex­pen­sive equip­ment.

I started look­ing at “com­mer­cial” work where busi­nesses might con­trib­ute to the costs if we did re­search of rel­e­vance to them.

I en­gaged with Neuren Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, which has led to the development of Trofine­tide, now in stage three hu­man clin­i­cal tri­als as a treat­ment for Rett syn­drome, a hor­ri­ble neu­ro­ge­netic dis­or­der that one in 12,000 fe­males is born with. Suf­fer­ers lose cog­ni­tive and mo­tor func­tion and have a life ex­pectancy in the mid-30s.

So iron­i­cally, the drive to sup­port aca­demic work has led to the dis­cov­ery of a drug that will change a lot of peo­ple’s lives. More­over, it changed my life, be­cause I re­alised that by work­ing with com­mer­cial part­ners and en­gag­ing with com­pa­nies like that you can do some­thing even more pos­i­tive than the aca­demic work that was ini­tially driv­ing me.

We also col­lab­o­rated with other aca­demics such as an im­mu­nol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Rod Dun­bar. This re­search led to a can­cer vac­cine “spin-out” com­pany, Sap­vax, with an in­vest­ment of US$5.5 mil­lion. We have also worked with a pest con­trol com­pany on a re­place­ment for 1080, with Comvita to iden­tify unique biomark­ers for manuka honey and we are now work­ing with the Uni­ver­sity of Otago on a new sani­tiser to pre­vent bovine mas­ti­tis.

When I look back 20 years, the first months in Auck­land were sheer hell and I spent a lot of time won­der­ing what I had done and want­ing to re­turn to Syd­ney. But that very des­per­a­tion led to many pos­i­tive things that are hap­pen­ing now. It’s also nice that I have man­aged to do the fun­da­men­tal aca­demic work that led to the Fel­low­ship of the Royal So­ci­ety while do­ing trans­la­tional/ap­plied work in par­al­lel.

The fund­ing prob­lems at the uni­ver­sity are still the same. The sit­u­a­tion hasn’t changed at all. And I’m not a nat­u­ral en­tre­pre­neur — for me ne­ces­sity has cer­tainly been the mother of in­ven­tion. Nev­er­the­less, if I’d come here and all the fa­cil­i­ties and re­sources I had at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney were read­ily avail­able with lit­tle cost, none of these good things would have hap­pened.

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