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Cortex - Life Sciences Insights

| 9 minutes read

Inspirational Women in Life Sciences: Professor Dame Sue Hill

This week’s featured Inspirational Women in Life Sciences is Professor Dame Sue Hill, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) for England. 

Dame Sue Hill shares her insights over her incredible career, discussing her favourite elements of the job, what she is most proud of, the promising field of genomics and her advice for others considering a career in life sciences. She is interviewed by Kate Black, Senior Associate in DLA Piper's Intellectual Property and Technology team who specialises is in the life sciences sector.

Your role is incredibly varied, working with government, scientific teams, the NHS and other external stakeholders to help inform and influence policy, strategic change and innovation. As a result of this, I imagine that your work is very fast paced, and that no one day looks the same for you. Other than that variety, what are some of your favourite things about your job?

Having worked in and around the NHS in different roles for nearly 50 years, Dame Sue comments that working as part of the NHS is in her blood. 

For me personally it is all about the patient, their families, the population that the NHS serves and how we can prevent, diagnose, treat and monitor disease using cutting edge scientific advances and technologies. In every role I have had, I have ensured that evidence has been generated to inform patient care, service development and future strategies.”

Dame Sue’s current role is incredibly varied and she cites thoroughly enjoying working with a great breadth of people and institutions. 

I am working at the top of the NHS and across the health and care system with other health care leaders, with ministers and officials in government departments.  In my leadership role as the SRO for Genomics I work internationally with other governments, health systems and global bodies including the WHO. As Chief Scientific Officer for England I am also the head of the profession for healthcare science, covering over 50 different STEM areas, from reproductive science and biochemistry, to hearing/audiology and neurophysiology and then all the way through to medical physics and clinical engineering. I work with scientific teams within the NHS and other associated bodies such as the UK Health Security Agency and NHS Blood and Transplant and across the UK and with a whole range of other stakeholders and scientific organisations. 

No one day is the same, it is fast-paced and I am often jumping from one topic to another. I may be presenting on the NHS implementation of genomic medicine at an international conference and at the same time, fitting in Teams calls to discuss budgets or a matter requiring scientific advice, or our plans for improving paediatric hearing services.” 

Your contributions to the Life Sciences field and achievements therein are countless (not least to mention being made a Dame in 2018 in recognition of your contributions to the 100,000 Genome Project)! Over your professional career to date, what are some of the things you’re proudest of?

“Over my long career I have been fortunate to make numerous contributions to the healthcare and life sciences sector in general.  My early career involved applying new technologies targeted towards monitoring different physiological responses in severely unwell adults and in those undergoing complex surgery.” 

Dame Sue also referenced being proud of the periods during which she held several diverse roles and performed multiple functions simultaneously, such as undertaking her PhD whilst also delivering services for the NHS, co-leading national and international clinical trials, and establishing the respiratory research unit between the NHS and University of Birmingham.

Birmingham features heavily in Dame Sue’s career, including her role in the design and delivery of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She was appointed as the first non-medical clinical director of respiratory medicine in Birmingham and subsequently joint national clinical director for respiratory disease within the Department of Health leading the development of the first national strategy for COPD and asthma. 

Dame Sue kindly gave us an insight into just some of her other career highlights.

“Just a few of the highlights I am most proud of over my career include:   

  • Leading the NHS contribution to the 100,000 Genomes Project, taking a whole NHS transformative approach to delivery, which in turn informed the establishment of the world’s first NHS Genomic medicine service and is now informing the approach taken in other countries.
  • Acting as head of a 55,000 strong non-medical scientific workforce in the NHS and associated organisations - one of the largest STEM groups in any employment sector.
  • Becoming the first female Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) for England in the then Department of Health and then in 2012 establishing the role and function of Chief Scientist for the NHS within NHS England.
  • Leading the UK national occupational standards project which mapped the roles, functions and competences of the whole workforce of over 50 different scientific specialities across the career pathway: from support worker to consultant clinical scientist. 
  • Making a major contribution to the COVID 19 response through leading and establishing the testing technologies, validation and assessment and genome sequencing programme initially as part of DHSC/ Test and Trace and then UK Health Security Agency.” 

On reflecting on her current role as Chief Scientific Officer, Dame Sue shared the following.

“I feel very privileged and honoured to be invited to give various presentations, including at named lectures around the world as well as working with and as part of both national and global organisations and health systems, focused on implementing genomic medicine. This has included leading and establishing an international collaborative partnership for education and training in genomics which will be critical to ensure that genomics is adopted for patient and population benefit. 

I am also proud of the work I have done with patients and patient groups to enable our polices and strategies to be co-produced and shaped by the lived experience.” 

Dame Sue also cited being understandably proud of the recognition she has received for this work, including being awarded Doctors of Science by 13 universities in England recognising her contribution to science and healthcare. “I see each one as a unique opportunity to work with those universities and to give something back.”

She was also delighted to be awarded with Fellowships of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists and to become a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Scientists based on her contributions to medical science. Then last but by no means least, she was given an OBE…!

“Of course, both my family and myself were delighted when I was given an OBE by the late Queen in 2005 for my contribution to healthcare science and later made a Dame Commander in 2018”. These were honours which she received for leading the NHS contribution to the 100,000 Genomes Project and for her work in genomic medicine more broadly.

In your role as SRO for Genomics in NHS England, you will know better than most the potential for genomics to shape the future of medicine and the opportunities it could create with regard to predictive and pre-emptive health care. In a world first, we recently saw the MHRA approve a CRISPR-based gene editing tool. We also saw NHS England recently launch a new BRCA gene testing programme, which will look to help identity cancer risks in patients with Jewish ancestry early. These are both great recent examples demonstrating how precision-based diagnostic tests and treatment could become a more integrated part of our care pathways. In relation to developments like this, what are you most looking forward to seeing, or being involved with, over the next 5-10 years?

As many interviewees have in this series so far, Dame Sue references the excitement and interest afforded to those working in the sector by way of the constant evolution and development of the scientific and healthcare fields. 

Working in science and health means there are always ongoing advances in the discovery and translational research field. These in turn inform the evidence base for adoption within healthcare coupled with technological innovation.”

In terms of the opportunities in the next 10 years, she shares the following likely highlights.

In 2028 we will celebrate 100 years since the discovery of penicillin. This signalled the advent of antibiotic era and eventually the development of antibiotic resistance which has now become a global threat. As we look forward, we are working in exciting partnerships with multiple organisations and industry colleagues to develop and introduce new AMR (anti-microbial resistant) focused diagnostics including point of care testing devices, as well as respiratory metagenomics to provide both improved antibiotic stewardship and in the case of respiratory metagenomics, an early warning bio-surveillance system. 

In 1953 the structure of DNA was revealed which eventually led to the Human Genome Project and developments such as the next generation sequencing technology. When coupled with advances in computing and analytical power this opened the door for the more widespread adoption of next generation sequencing in healthcare. The future will see:

  • The development of a greater understanding of genes and their function in health and disease, 
  • A more widespread use and analysis of whole genome sequencing utilising different DNA based technologies.
  • A more systematic use of functional genomics including RNA sequencing, methylation and proteomics.
  • Developing an understanding of looking for multiple metabolomic markers. 

There will be a more comprehensive genomics approach in cancer using new and novel technologies such as circulating tumour DNA to change clinical pathways and to support early access for clinical trials.”

Dame Sue cites the exciting opportunities in the development of precision medicines and advanced medicinal therapeutic products that are quickly emerging and are targeting a genomic mutation, refencing Casgevy: the first CRISPR based gene editing tool to be approved by the MHRA

The future will also see genomics expanding into population and predictive health approaches such as in the use of polygenic risk scores for common diseases or in more widespread testing for inherited cancer risk exemplified in the current project testing for BRCA in specific populations. 

However, there will be many more advances in the field of diagnostics more generally including in imaging and combining different types of imaging and the use of more automation and AI and machine learning. There will be developments in the field of radiotherapy and in the coming together of different disciplines to find innovative solutions such as those involving clinical engineering.

Going forward I am excited to lever innovation to move societal reliance from reactive healthcare towards a preventative health system for patients and families to achieve earlier care to transform lives, to reduce health inequalities and to enable science to help level up life changes.”

As you know, my first experience of working in this space was the work I did with you in relation to the GLH Procurement in England. This opened my eyes to the incredible innovation and efforts taking place to transform the future and opportunities for our health care system, and I’ve enjoyed working in this space ever since. What advice would you give to other women and girls thinking of pursuing a career in the life sciences sector?

The Life Sciences sector inherently has variety and diversity, not least because it is characterised by scientific and technological advances and application in multiple different fields across the innovation pathway – from discovery, to translation, to adoption and spread. It also offers so many different opportunities, not just in healthcare, but in for example, agriculture and engineering, in the manufacturing industries, in med-tech and pharma companies, as well as in law, finance and ethics, computing science and analytics including in economic evaluation, in consultancy and of course in research and development. 

There is something for everyone and it is an exciting time for women and girls thinking of pursuing a career in this area with role models now in every sector and area, who have reached the top of their chosen profession. The sky is most definitely the limit! 

As an important side note, a key piece of advice I would also give to aspiring women and girls in science is do not feel that you are limited; you can have a rewarding career and you can make a difference.” 


Next in the IWD: Inspirational Women in Life Sciences Series 

This series features inspirational woman working in the life sciences sector with the aim of increasing access and visibility of female role models in the Life Sciences sector: a recognised factor in increasing entry and retention of women in STEM fields. 

Please tune in for the next feature on Maria Muresan, Legal and Compliance Director BA Europe East Large Markets at Novo Nordisk.