Science, society and drug design

Biochemist Professor Sir Thomas Blundell has been elected to local council, designed cancer drugs and advised Prime Ministers on public research, bringing a bit of a revolution to each role

Dr Andi Horvath

Published 27 November 2019

Episode 68

Now a professor of biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, in 1969 Sir Thomas Blundell was one of the first people to see what the hormone insulin looked like. As part of the team led by Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin, it was a medical breakthrough for diabetes patients everywhere.

“I was always interested in doing a range of different things,” Professor Blundell says.

“I came from a family where my grandfather was a very gifted artist and musician. And although my parents left school when they were 14 and 15, they always encouraged me to think more broadly.”

“So I may be a little bit unusual because I’ve ended up doing things in politics, music and science, and that of course led me to advise prime ministers and to run organisations and found companies.”

Professor Blundell’s research has focussed on understanding the structure and function of molecules for targets to improve drug design.

“By using X-rays with very short wavelength, I can see these very tiny molecules. Add in other methods like electron microscopy and the individual molecules can be revealed.

His work has contributed significantly to stopping the progression of HIV into AIDS and to developing new drugs for cancer treatment in both his academic career and through a spinoff company he initially founded with two former students.

“In Europe, Australia and the United States, we are lucky, we have access to medicines that research has developed, but the real challenge is to make sure that it’s available not just to the rich, but to the world in general.”

Episode recorded: September 26, 2019.

Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.

Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.

Co-production: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.

Banner: Getty Images

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