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
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.