UCL Faculty of Life Sciences


Dr Iain Chessell, Pharmacology BSc

Iain studied Pharmacology BSc at UCL, graduating in 1990. He is now Head of Neuroscience at AstraZeneca.

Dr Iain Chessell
What inspired you to study at UCL?

It may sound trite, but I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to do something that was productive. I considered medicine, as well as a few other things, but I think I was intrigued by the fact that for almost every disease there’s a drug treatment, whether it be cancer or a headache or something else. I had a long-standing interest in how chemicals interact with the body and how drugs work, and pharmacology really is the kind of purest study of that, so it was quite an easy decision in terms of subject.

At the time I was applying to university, the internet didn’t exist in the same way. I was reading textbooks about pharmacology and a lot of them were written by people at UCL, so it was a relatively easy decision for me to make. UCL also had a world-class reputation. 

What did you enjoy most about studying in London?

I lived in halls near West Hampstead during my first year at university and that was great. It was a really fun experience being away from home for the first time and having the freedom to make my own decisions about what I was going to do.

I also really enjoyed the way my course was delivered, which, looking back now, was incredibly modern. It wasn’t just somebody wandering around the front of a lecture theatre for an hour; it was interactive, with people asking questions about how things worked, and for me that was very stimulating. 

The other thing I remember is spending a lot of time around the campus drinking coffee, chatting with people and making new connections. I’m still friends with the person I sat next to on my first day, in my first lecture, and someone else I know from UCL is going to be the examiner for my current PhD student. I still speak to some of the people that I met in my first few weeks of university where everything was so bewildering. I think that’s a really good illustration of how strong those relationships and connections you make at university can be.

How do you think UCL has helped you in your career?

UCL provided me with a great fundamental understanding of Pharmacology and a great understanding of how to practice good experiments. I would say that shaped my career and were things that I took with me when I went onto do my PhD and post doc.

UCL also helped me to build my network, and I still talk to people all over the world who studied at UCL at the same time.

My overall lasting memory of UCL is the really, really high quality of academic tuition. There was a real human touch to your tutors; you had individual support, and they would always help me if I was struggling to grasp something. The fact that 20 to 30 years later the principles of pharmacology that I learned at UCL are still current, that they’re helping me to guide principles for everything we do in a company like AstraZeneca is incredible. I don’t think many people can say that the knowledge they learned in their degree is still current 20 or 30 years later; I’m kind of proud to be able to say that.

Can you describe what your job entails?

Simply put, my role is broad ranging and includes both the discovery and the development of drugs for neurological diseases. We have a small, agile team working in this treatment space which offers a rare opportunity to work across the whole process from target identification through to Phase III trials.

Our work is highly collaborative, and we work with a wide range of other groups and organisations to create innovative solutions to healthcare challenges. We use the more conventional kind of chemical techniques but also use antibodies and any other relevant approaches. We look at gene editing, antisense oligonucleotides and other modalities that are suitable for a particular target that has been implicated in neurological illnesses.

We work on diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and our interest is disease modification so we’re not looking at symptomatic relief; we’re looking for cures. We’re trying to either prevent the disease from developing at all or prevent it from progressing any further once somebody has been diagnosed.

We’re also very active in the pain space. We’re looking at new therapies for different types of pain including osteoarthritis, chronic back pain, and some neuropathic pains. Chronic pain is an area of very high need worldwide. Currently, people will obtain about a 10% reduction in their pain overall with the current therapies that are available, which isn’t a tremendous response if you are in a lot of pain.

The third area that we work in is addictive behaviours and addiction, which has been in response to the recognised problem, particularly in the US, of opioid addiction. People have been prescribed opioids as painkillers and then go on to abuse those molecules or seek illicit substances from non-prescribed marketplaces.

That’s a brief overview of the discovery side of my role and then the other half is development. In development we’re looking at clinical trials across all phases. At the moment we have 6 or 7 clinical studies running in neurodegeneration and pain that are all in different stages of the trials.

We don’t work on things that have been only observed in animal models or things that have just come up in the literature; we look at humans first and we try to understand the disease in humans. We study the genetic causes of diseases, looking at human tissues, changes in protein processing, in signalling, really figuring out what the cause of the disease is in humans and following the science to uncover new opportunities for treatment.

My day-to-day job is looking after that portfolio and trying to figure out how we best apply our resources in discovery and ensuring that the studies are running to time. My passion is drug discovery and development, and that’s really been the flavour of my career, finding life-changing cures for terrible diseases. A lot of the things that I learned during my undergraduate studies, the basic principles of pharmacology, are the central core ingredients to everything we do every day. The rules of pharmacology and the understanding of toxicology is really important to understand the data that we’re generating and to be able to pull decisions from that data.

What advice would you give to either current or prospective students?

My advice for somebody wanting to pursue a career in Life Sciences, particularly in an academic or an industrial setting, is to do a PhD. Those with a PhD are recognised within the industry as being within a very small percentage of those with a very highly specialised skill that you can’t get elsewhere.

My other piece of advice is to enjoy it but expect to work hard if you want to do well. I think because it’s the first time living away from home for many, people are tempted by that sense of freedom. But universities are a competitive place, so have a good time but put in the work.

As a UCL alumnus, how have you stayed connected to UCL?

In the early part of my career, I was very much focused on my career, and I’m guilty of not being a good friend of UCL in that time! However, a few years ago I was talking to some friends about visiting professorships and through various connections I was offered a visiting professor role at UCL. Through this I have reconnected with some world-class scientists, and I’m involved in discussions with people at UCL about how to collaborate further.