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Working Life: Les Hughes

Published on 08/01/09 at 09:17am

How did you find your way into your role?

I wanted to be a chemist from my very first experience of practical chemistry at senior school. After university I decided to pursue a research career and, on completing my post doc, made the move to industry because I wanted my work to have very tangible end results in the form of medicines that could treat people.

I joined the company, then ICI, in 1978. One of the things that attracted me was the company's 'science ladder', a programme offering scientists career progression while remaining in science.

I always saw myself as a bench scientist but realised I could apply myself to more than just designing and making compounds. I got involved in ever-larger projects and managed bigger teams, often working alongside external researchers and consultants, and gaining responsibility for more of the growing cancer research portfolio.

AstraZeneca also allowed me to broaden my experience with assignments outside pure drug discovery, for example task forces looking at the future environment of diseases in which the company had an interest and general aspects of the drug discovery and development process.

It was that breadth of experience gained over 20 years that put me in a good position to head up the company's cancer and infection research when the role was created in 1997.

How is your field changing?

There are so many changes affecting the pharmaceutical industry generally and the world of cancer research specifically but, if I were to pick one, I'd say it is the realisation that no one can solve the problem of cancer on their own and the increasing willingness of industry and research institutions to work together in partnership.

We established our first such partnership some five years ago with a view to speeding up access to new medicines of potential benefit to cancer patients and have since formed similar relationships with institutions in the UK, US and Asia.

We've had a number of successes with this approach and are increasingly open to partnership opportunities.

What do you do all day?

This is a question my family ask me all the time! I spend most of my days in meetings, either to set direction or resolve the inevitable problems that arise from the drug development process. The typical response from my family is that so many meetings must get in the way of actually doing things. For me as an individual, they do, but my role is to guide and facilitate the work of others to achieve much more than I can in isolation.

What are the most enjoyable things about your job?

I get a real buzz from being around talented scientists and hearing about great scientific innovations. If I can add value to those innovations and help them realise their potential to deliver a tangible end result in the form of medicines to benefit patients, so much the better.

And the least enjoyable?

Sitting in airport lounges. I travel a lot as the company's cancer and infection research organisation is geographically diverse, with teams based throughout the UK as well as the US, India and China.

There's only so much you can do in a teleconference and nothing beats meeting up with scientists face-to-face and seeing their work in action.

What are the most common misconceptions about your field?

There are many misconceptions but the one closest to my heart is that drug discovery within the pharmaceutical industry is seen to lack innovation.

You only have to look at, for example, the number of peer review publications to see we're not just a compound factory and that our scientists make a huge contribution to the understanding and treatment of disease.

Who in your field has inspired or influenced you most?

Barry Furr worked in oncology and reproductive biology research for more than 30 years. He recently retired as AstraZeneca's chief scientist but remains a part-time consultant. His enthusiasm for drug discovery was an inspiration to me along with many other colleagues.

From Barry, I learnt the value of doing things to enable you to make a decision and that stopping a project - rather than carrying on regardless - is a good decision when it is based on good science.

Similarly, is there someone outside your field who has influenced you?

My PhD supervisor, Professor Raphael, was my first real inspiration in carrying out research. Whenever we ran into problems, he always remained optimistic and full of ideas. He also said that if research was easy, it would be less satisfying when it succeeded. These are lessons I have kept with me.

What is the secret to a happy working life?

For me, there are three things. First, humour; it relieves stress and makes sure you don't take yourself or others too seriously.

Second, being surrounded by people who share the same goals; when you trust each other's integrity and judgment, you just get on and make things happen.

Third, not underestimating the importance of relaxation and time to occupy the mind and body with things other than work.

If you had advice for anyone starting out in your field now, what would it be?

I'd advise them to be clear about the things that give them satisfaction and make sure their career has these elements. Make sure you enjoy travelling not just arriving.

How do you relax and forget about work?

I throw my energy and thoughts into other things, sport being an obvious outlet. I play golf and five-a-side football and support my local team, Macclesfield Town (although given their league position, clearly not for relaxation purposes). I also enjoy being in the garden and country walking with my family.

In an alternate life, what would you do for a living?

I always wanted to be in a job where I created something but, as I have no artistic skills, it would have to be either horticulture or cooking as chemists are really good at following recipes.

BIOGRAPHY: After obtaining a BSc in chemistry from Southampton, a PhD from Cambridge and postdoctoral work at Stanford, Les joined AstraZeneca (then ICI) in 1978 to work on novel inhibitors of sex steroid hormones, including Casodex (bicalutamide).

Following the anti-hormonal projects Les worked on inhibitors of thymidylate synthesis (TS), delivering the marketed drug, Tomudex (raltitrexed), as well as a back-up, AZD9331. Subsequently he managed all cancer medicinal chemistry and led projects including Arimidex (anastrozole).

Les changed disease areas at the beginning of the nineties, working on projects targeted to normalisation of lipid profiles and vaso active agents, including endothelin antagonist ZD4054, now in phase III for prostate cancer.

Les currently heads cancer and infection research for AstraZeneca worldwide and is responsible for all pre-clinical work, including the translational science for compounds in the clinic.

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