CAREER INFORMATION

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HENRY – GOVERNMENT TOXICOLOGIST

What career path and training has led you to your current job?

I graduated with a BSc in Biology from the University of London. This included the study of a wide range of topics such as microbiology, biochemistry (until recently I could draw a Krebs cycle in my sleep) and physiology. During the course I became interested in pharmacology and so completed a course in the subject. I also did another fascinating course in psycho-pharmacology run by two psychiatrists from the Institute of Psychiatry which included a visit to the Institute and to the Maudsley Hospital.
 
I continued my academic studies and gained my higher degree in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde. My project supervisor was Professor William Bowman who was well known in his field and an author of a standard pharmacology text book.
 
My first job was as a research assistant at University College Hospital, London, in the Department of Medical Physics. I was involved in developing a non-invasive method of measuring the blood oxygen concentration in premature neonates using a transcutaneous monitor. I then moved to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, in the Department of Surgery where I was involved in the investigation of the pathology of upper gastrointestinal tract and the effect of various drugs such as H2 antagonists.
 
My next post was at the Department of Health Toxicology Laboratories at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. It was here that I began my career in toxicology, being immersed in the practical aspects of investigating the toxicology of mainly food additives. Whilst there, I joined the BTS and was fortunate to be able to attend many training courses.
 
After a few years in the laboratory I hung up my white coat and became a “Regulatory” toxicologist at the Pesticide Safety Division at the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries (now Defra). I evaluated the risk to human health including the farm workers and the public of the use (and misuse) of pesticides.
When an opportunity occurred to join the Medicines Division at the Department of Health I jumped at the chance since I thought I could not only use my toxicological experience but also put my knowledge of pharmacology to good use.
 
I’m still working there, although our name has been changed twice, first to the “Medicines Control Agency” and more recently to “Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency”(MHRA)… These name changes are frequent in the public sector and is probably more relevant to the politicians than us toxicologists!

Why did you want to study Toxicology?

I came into toxicology by accident. My first two posts were short term contracts. The job at St Bartholomew’s Toxicology laboratories was a permanent post and it sounded interesting. I was more of a pharmacologist than toxicologist at the time. But I’ve never looked back.
 

What’s a typical day at work like?

Most of my time is spent on evaluating the non-clinical data submitting by companies who are seeking a marketing authorisation for their product. The work is conducted as part of a multi-disciplinary team, including a clinician, a pharmacist and a statistician. We work together to evaluate whether the quality, efficacy and safety of a product is such that the risk/benefit is in favour (or not) of the product. There is much interpretation of complex sets of data and expert judgment. There are also face to face scientific advice meeting with companies and providing advice e.g. to ministers. I’m also involved in working groups across Government that deal with toxicology related issues, and also have the opportunity to work with Government advisory committees.
 

What are the best things about being a toxicologist in the Government?

It is the feeling that you are doing a worthwhile job. It is the satisfaction of working as part of a team in evaluating the risk/benefit of a new medicine and to meeting the challenge of protecting public health whilst not impeding unnecessarily the availability of medicines.
 
There is variety of work and working with people of different disciplines.
There is interaction with colleagues from the other European regulatory agencies, since the majority of medicines are authorised on an EU-wide basis. There are also opportunities to become involved in expert advisory bodies, as well as opportunities for training and development both internally and externally.
 
In short, it is a worthwhile job with many stimulating aspects and opportunities for personal development.