View from the top
Despite practising in what he terms as ‘a slightly unfashionable area’, Jeff Errington – and his seminal work in bacterial cell biology – has been recognised repeatedly throughout the industry, the latest accolade being the Biomedical Society Novartis Medal. Yet, to those who know him, he’s just “a great guy who loves his beer and his football.”
The role call of awards and fellowships recognising Prof Jeff Errington BSc, MA, Ph.D., FMedSci, FRS, and his work in the field of microbiology, is long and prestigious. The most recent is the Novartis Medal, awarded earlier this year for his outstanding contributions to the understanding of bacterial cell biology. With seven previous recipients going on to receive a Nobel Prize, just reading the names of his exalted predecessors was a “humbling experience” for Jeff. But, he says, the most pleasing aspect of the award lay in that he’s not really a ‘hard core’ biochemist – “my early training was in genetics, so it’s great to be recognised by those in another discipline.”
But it was being made a Fellow of the Royal Society that’s been the highlight of his career – so far. For most active scientists, election to this select group – based on an extremely competitive peer review process – is the ultimate recognition of success, and acknowledges a highly significant contribution to the advancement of scientific knowledge. Admits Jeff, “Belonging to the same ‘club’ as Newton, Darwin and Einstein brings an overwhelming sense of achievement.
But I’m most pleased about these awards because I work in a slightly unfashionable area – I call it bacterial cell biology, but others view it as microbiology and see it only as being interesting from the perspective that we need new antibiotics. My main interest is really in understanding how cells work. It sends a good signal, especially to younger scientists, that a successful career can be developed outside the mainstream areas of science.”
Jeff was born and raised locally. He completed his first degree in Newcastle, moved to London to do a PhD, and then on to Oxford for a two-year post-doctorate; he ended up staying for 25 years, emerging as Professor of Microbiology. In 1998 he was founder, Chief Scientific Officer and Board member of Prolysis Ltd, a spin-out from the University of Oxford focusing on antibiotic drug discovery and development. In 2009, Prolysis was acquired by what is now a Nasdaq-listed, anti-infective biotechnology company, Biota Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Jeff served on its Board until standing down last month.
In 2006 he was made an “offer I couldn’t refuse”: to return to Newcastle as Director of the Institute for Cell and Molecular Bioscience. This gave him the opportunity to build the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology, now the world’s largest grouping of researchers working on fundamental studies of bacterial cells.
Jeff founded his second spinout company, Demuris, in 2007. At this point Prolysis was primarily focused on drug development and Jeff realised there was an opportunity to continue screening for more potential new drug compounds.
For three decades Jeff has striven to make a difference and raise the profile of basic research on microbes, and hopes that the people he’s helped train will create the critical mass needed to restore the field to its former glory. In Oxford, he was based at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, where penicillin was first purified by Florey, Chain and colleagues, and then cephalosporins were discovered and patented, so he’s long since been immersed in the knowledge of how scientists can have a huge impact on world health. “Of course, it would be wonderful to discover a novel antibiotic and see it get to the market,” he admits.
Being able to make a difference is partly about leading by example and partly about making effective use of political systems.”
Jeff actually gave up lab work more than ten years ago, realising it required more time than he could commit to. He was also much more interested in poring over the results than in doing the sometimes long, drawn out experiments. But, perhaps more insightfully, he was starting to recognise the necessity of being a political animal if he was to build the size and quality of lab he envisioned, populated with the people and facilities he wanted, to produce commercially viable results.
Unexpectedly, he realised that he actually enjoyed aspects of management, particularly mentoring junior faculty and being able to influence important strategic decisions at an institutional level. A wide range of non-research activities have distracted him further over the last few years, but he pushes himself to continually return to research “because, ultimately, that’s what really floats my boat.”
In the way of driven people, Jeff’s energies are largely restricted to work. “It’s probably a bit trite but I couldn’t mention anything other than being the father of two girls that I’m immensely proud of.” His two ‘girls’ are Sinead, a recently qualified medic, and Niamh, who is studying for a degree in mathematics. He’s been married to Veronica for 31 years and they live on the North East coast at Embleton, “which is spectacularly beautiful, and a wonderful environment in which to live. It has everything – the seascapes, the Cheviot Hills, the spectacular castles and very friendly people.”
A lifelong, card-carrying Newcastle United fan, Jeff’s nod to sport is football. At 57, he still plays himself but has slowed the pace to 5- or 7-a side, a couple of times a week – “but I still try to keep up with the young guys.” But the ‘beer and football’ nice guy image he has among some seems to be only partly true – “I don’t have a favourite pint and probably enjoy going for a pint with people more than the actual beer!”
In a rather more unusual and unorthodox pastime, Jeff can often be found up a tree in the large family garden, pruning or lopping off excess timber.
I used to enjoy climbing trees as a child. I’m not really sure why I still do it, but it’s good exercise and the views from the top can be amazing. Now, we also have a wood burning stove, so I’m helping to save the planet!”
Jeff still has a list of burning ambitions, including the ambiguous and intriguing solving of “several important scientific questions about how cells work”. More specifically, he wants to make a success of Demuris, in part because he believes that the North East needs a local biotech industry for both generating high tech jobs and raising the profile of the region.
And, of course, he’s particularly keen to play a role in the discovery and development of that elusive novel antibiotic.