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AstraZeneca’s Tim Eisen on the importance of collaborations in cancer research


ICR alumnus Professor Tim Eisen is now Head of Oncology Early Clinical Development at AstraZeneca. We caught up with him at a recent event where he shared his career advice and thoughts about working in industry.

Posted on 05 February, 2020 by Dr Alison Halliday and Graham Shaw

ICR alumnus, Professor Tim Eisen being interviewed

The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust recently held their first Science Day with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, at our Chester Beatty Laboratories in Chelsea.

Bringing together more than 100 delegates from across all three organisations, the day was an opportunity for scientists to network and identify future collaboration possibilities. As well as stimulating new ideas, the event also represented a celebration of past successes in cross-sector collaborations between the ICR, The Royal Marsden and AstraZeneca.

We spoke with one of the event attendees – Professor Tim Eisen, who completed his PhD in 1995 at the Marie Curie Research Institute in association with the ICR, moving into industry later in his career after many years of working in the NHS and academia.

What’s your relationship with the ICR?

I've been at the ICR and The Royal Marsden on a number of occasions, in fact, all the way from being a junior doctor. In those days, and then as a PhD student, which I did at the Marie Curie Research Institute which was linked with the ICR, I worked for Ian Smith in the clinic and Martin Gore was my mentor.

I then worked on the specialist registrar rotation at The Royal Marsden to complete my training. After going elsewhere to be a senior lecturer, I came back to be a senior lecturer for five years. It’s about 13 or 14 years in four bits.

We're one of the leading higher education institutions in the world at collaborating with industry. Our aim is to develop our research discoveries into new treatments, diagnostics or supporting technologies for cancer. 

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What are your thoughts on studying at the ICR?

I think even as a junior doctor it was obvious that the unique structure of the ICR and The Royal Marsden and their unique relationship had enormous potential. And in fact, when you arrive you find it's not just potential, it's in operation.

Another big draw was the calibre, because I was initially training as a clinician, the calibre of the clinicians and the scientists here, it's just world class, and you can't beat that.

Inevitably, with ICR and Royal Marsden staff and alumni being so prominent in their fields, and actually being spread not only around Britain, but around the globe, you continue working with them.

So there's a huge alumni network of people and I think, with almost no exceptions, they remember working here with not only fondness but pride.

What career advice do you have for others?

I think one of the things that I'm perhaps slightly unusual for is that I have continued to move around from time to time throughout my career, and I think that's a very good thing to do. It obviously prevents you getting stale, because every few years you're on a steep upward learning curve.

But it also enables you to bring the value that you can from your previous experiences, which may be in an entirely different field. So at the moment, I'm predominantly in industry.

I have a chair in medical oncology in Cambridge, but that's a relatively small part now of my work. But I think that whatever you do, you are ultimately of greater value if you have broad experiences.

What’s it like working in industry?

I think that the main thing that I’ve gained from the transition to industry is the importance of working in a collaborative way, the importance of developing yourself and other people, and developing your leadership skills.

That is absolutely key. I think that industry in many ways does this better than academia or the NHS. And I think that we could learn in academia and the NHS from how industry does it.

I think the other thing which is really important is that industry, academia and the NHS have inverted views of the value of time and money. So particularly in large pharma, time is much more valuable than money. And often in academia and in the NHS, the opposite is true.

Money is more of a limitation and is more valuable than time. And so I think finding a happy medium between those is absolutely key to good collaborations.

Why is cross-sector collaboration important?

It's really important to collaborate in cancer research because quite frankly, there's no alternative. No single institution, however huge it is, is good at the entire development pathway of a new drug, for example.

So a drug company may be very good at discovery, it may be very good at developing the drug, but it can't do the clinical part without collaborations.

And even at institutions like the ICR, which has a great breadth of skills, you still need to work with good drug companies who have many excellent chemistry skills and the ability to get drugs to patients, which ultimately is the purpose of the exercise.

Do you have any other tips to share?

The advice I would give to ICR alumni and students is I would work with a variety of really great people.

I would get a variety of experiences, particularly before you settle down to one main thing, but I wouldn't forget about the possibility of broadening your sphere of interest and expertise throughout your career.

I think that's really key; it keeps you fresh and makes you more valuable.


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