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Searching for solutions – one scientist’s story

“To make a difference, you sometimes need to step outside your comfort zone and reinvent yourself.” - Dr Andrew Benowitz

It’s this attitude that has got Dr Andrew Benowitz to where he is today – head of GSK’s haemoglobin research centre in Upper Providence, Pennsylvania.

In 2011 Andrew – a bench-side chemist of 10 years at GSK - was inspired to investigate a new area of research by a colleague who was suffering from the genetic condition sickle cell anaemia. Sickle cell anaemia is caused by a defect in the structure of haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying compound in red blood cells. The resulting sickle red blood cells frequently get stuck in blood vessels, often causing unbearable pain.

Andrew had been surprised to discover that there were few treatments for the disease.

After researching the subject, he decided to submit a one-page business proposal to GSK’s very own “Dragon’s Den” for new research ideas. The process to consider where to invest GSK’s early stage research budget has been termed the 'Dragon’s Den' because it is similar to that of the British TV programme, where budding entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to potential investors.

Although the judging panel are just as tough, Andrew says there are differences – the people you’re pitching your ideas to are among the smartest scientific minds, and the ideas they’re looking for are the ones that will make the biggest impact for patients. At the end of the process, the best scientific ideas become the focus for a new research centre, a Discovery Performance Unit (DPU).

 

Dr Andrew Benowitz

Dr Andrew Benowitz in the lab

Andrew’s proposal was one of six to be shortlisted from around 60. The six selected candidates were then invited to write a fuller proposal and to present their ideas in front of the panel. “The meeting was an intimidating experience,” Andrew said. “I was a relatively junior researcher, and I was just hoping that GSK would take up this research project in which I would play a supporting role. To make the experience more daunting, my presentation followed that of some very senior scientists, who were pitching to renew an existing grant.”

At the end of his 20 minutes, the panel gave Andrew a huge round of applause. “It was extremely humbling, given the eminent standing of the panel,” explains Andrew. But more surprises were yet to come.

Just one week later, Patrick Vallance, President of pharmaceuticals R&D at GSK, told Andrew that his idea had won the investment, and that Andrew was to head it. “I was stunned speechless, but I realised that I now had the opportunity to make a difference in patients' lives that I never before thought was possible.”

Two years on, Andrew and his team of scientists are still motivated and inspired in their task. They have started the process of scanning nearly two million molecules to try and find compounds that will turn on the production of a protein called foetal haemoglobin. The theory is if they can find a molecule that encourages the bone marrow to make more of this protein, it might then be turned into a drug to help patients with sickle cell anaemia.

For Andrew, this really is a dream job. He puts his success down to always thinking about the patients who are waiting for new medicines, and to a willingness to step outside his comfort zone to try to help them.

 

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