Professor Sir Philip Cohen, of the University of Dundee, has received the highest award given by the Medical Research Council at a ceremony in the House of Commons on Wednesday February 27th.
The Millennium Medal is the MRC’s most prestigious award, presented every two years to an outstanding scientist who has made a major contribution towards the MRC’s mission to improve human health through world class medical research.
This year the MRC are presenting two medals, to Sir Philip and to Professor Sir Gregory Winter, of the University of Cambridge.
Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the MRC, said, “The MRC is proud to award this year’s Millennium Medal to Sir Philip and Sir Greg. Over the past century the MRC has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health.
Professor Savill continued, “It is with great pleasure that I, along with the MRC’s Council, can recognize those that have contributed so significantly to the transformation of healthcare and the advancement of the way the research community collaborates and innovates.”
Sir Philip said, “I am deeply honored to accept this award from the Medical Research Council. The MRC has given me tremendous support over the past 35 years for the research that I have carried out in Dundee and I am happy that, with the support of the 45 PhD students and 65 postdoctoral researchers who have worked with me over this period, I have been able to make discoveries that are now having a significant impact on human health and wealth creation.”
Sir Philip is Deputy Director of the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy and was Director of the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit from the time of its inception in 1990 until April 2012. Both research divisions are situated within the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee.
He has devoted his career to studying a cell regulation process called phosphorylation. This endeavour has contributed to what has become the largest and fastest growing area of drug discovery over the past decade.
Sir Philip had been a researcher for 25 years before he first received a phone call from a pharmaceutical company.
“People used to say ‘Oh, what you're doing is interesting but it will never be of the slightest of use for improving health or for wealth creation’,” he recalled.
Phosphorylation is a type of cell regulation that involves the attachment to, or removal of, phosphate groups from proteins, thereby switching their biological functions on or off, or making them more or less stable.
Once thought to be a highly specialized process, Sir Philip’s research helped to show that it was, in fact, universal, regulating almost all aspects of cell life. When phosphorylation goes wrong, it can cause diseases such as cancer, diabetes and arthritis.
That first phone call marked the beginning of Philip’s long and fruitful collaborations with pharmaceutical companies. In 1998 he established the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, a unique collaboration between researchers from the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit, the College of Life Sciences of the University of Dundee and six pharmaceutical companies.
The collaboration employs 200 research and support staff in Dundee and has brought in more than £50 million in funding in its 14-year history. It has helped to accelerate drug development in this area and become a model for collective collaboration between academia and industry. It also led to the creation of biotechnology company Upstate in Dundee in 1999, which is now part of the Merck-Millipore empire.
Therapies based on phosphorylation are one of the largest and fastest growing areas of drug discovery: there are 24 approved drugs that target this process, sales of which were £18 billion globally in 2011, with over 150 others still undergoing clinical trials.
So what has his experience taught him? “I think it shows how important it is to fund ‘blue skies’ research. It can take an awfully long time for research to reach the stage where it becomes obvious how it can be exploited for the benefit of mankind,” he said.