pauline williams

Pauline Williams
Head of Global Health
R&D

From bench to bedside: lessons in converting science into impact

Pauline Williams, Head of Global Health R&D, shares a unique perspective on what it takes to research new treatments and deliver them to patients around the world.

Recently, I was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. It’s not the usual habitat of a global health scientist, but I was there for two important meetings looking at how we make further progress against some of the biggest healthcare challenges we face.

The first was the Goalkeeper 18 summit, hosted by Bill Gates. Here, world leaders in politics, business, policy and academia explored how we work together to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals – an ambitious set of targets for achieving a better, and healthier, future for all. The second meeting drilled down into how funders, pharmaceutical companies, academics and regulators can collaborate on a transformative drug regime to combat TB.

These conversations were inspiring; but also crystallised the challenges we face and the lessons we must learn if we’re to banish diseases like TB and malaria for good.

Firstly, science is only the start – it’s a long road to getting new medicines and vaccines to those who need them most. Secondly, we simply don’t have the capacity to take everything forwards alone.

There are two moments in my career which really sum up these lessons for me.

Science is only the start

My own journey into global health began leading a project to develop an antiseptic gel to prevent umbilical cord infections in newborns – sepsis is major cause of infant death in poorer countries.

Chlorhexidine – an antiseptic – is used in a GSK mouthwash.  We transformed that into a gel that could survive extreme temperatures and long journeys. Our partnership with Save the Children gave us expert input into the design of the packaging - with pictorial instructions to help those with low literacy.  

I saw the relevance of this first-hand when I visited a Save the Children project in Kenya. One of my lasting memories is being invited into a home in a remote mountain village to see a mother apply chlorhexidine gel to the cord stump of her three-day-old baby.  The term “bench to bedside” took on a whole new meaning for me.

Somewhat naively, I had assumed that the delivery of a registered product and its adoption into the WHO Essential Medicines List would trigger rapid uptake from countries. Some two years after our first regulatory approval, orders are only just coming through.

It was a clear lesson on the imperative to engage with relevant partners very early in the development of any new healthcare intervention.  Getting the science right is only the first step.  We must also ensure that it is accessible by the patients who most need it, that there is a coordinated on-the-ground effort to make sure the benefit is understood, and that the healthcare infrastructure is able to receive and administer it.

My trip to Kenya demonstrated the power of this kind of integrated maternal and neonatal healthcare, which joins the dots between supply of medicines and vaccines, training of healthcare workers and community-level education.

Eugenia, scientist, working at Tres Cantos
Eugenia, a senior scientist working in the tuberculosis biology laboratory at Tres Cantos, Madrid

We can only move forward if we work together

One of the proudest moments of my career was watching my global health R&D team present data and respond to questions at an FDA Advisory Committee for tafenoquine, a new medicine for the prevention of relapse in malaria vivax. In the public session, one international expert after another spoke about the potential transformational impact of this medicine.

It was a privilege to watch the culmination of decades of work by many hundreds of people in GSK and our partners – clinical investigators, patients, co-funders and expert advisors. Medicines for Malaria Venture will now take the lead on implementation studies, and PATH is overseeing availability of a low-cost and accurate diagnostic to ensure appropriate use of tafenoquine.

Despite the long history of working on this medicine in GSK, it dawned on me that we are still at the start of the journey. So much more needs to be done to secure access and impact of this medicine. Bespoke partnerships, pooling resource and expertise, are needed to deliver on its promise. We only reached this point through partnering in unconventional ways and we’ll only move forward if we think laterally about how different sectors can work together.

Science + end-to-end-planning + partnerships = sustainable impact

As I look at the emerging portfolio from my research team, addressing diseases that affect developing countries, I am very proud; but I’m also aware of the real challenges ahead. How can we make sure that each of these medicines has a roadmap from bench to patient? Where do we prioritise our resources, and who are the best partners to help us accelerate and maximise access to these innovations?

These questions – and the lessons we’ve learned from tafenoquine and chlorhexidine (as well as from our malaria vaccine, RTS,S) – have informed a new vision for global health at GSK.

We’re proud of our heritage in global health – which has seen us develop the first vaccine against malaria, and champion open innovation research into neglected tropical diseases. In future, we want to focus our efforts on where we have the scientific expertise and where the science is promising, namely HIV, malaria and TB, with an emphasis on illnesses that affect children and young people. But we’ll also plot the route to the patient from the outset – devising an end-to-end plan which draws on our resources and those of our partners to ensure our science reaches those who need it most.  

If we can nail this, then I am optimistic of a more sustainable future for global health research and, critically, more impact for patients.

This blog is part of our A view from the lab… series, sharing insights from scientists around our company. It was originally published on Pauline Williams’ LinkedIn profile.