The University of Dundee has today awarded an Honorary Doctorate to Dr Samantha Budd Haeberlein who is Vice President of Late Stage Clinical Development at Biogen.
Samantha is a distinguished graduate of Dundee having obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Biochemistry in 1994 and then completing a PhD in 1997 under the supervision of David Nicholls FRS on the bioenergetics of neurons. Since then Samantha has flourished in the pharmaceutical industry over the last 20 years and emerged as a global leader in developing effective therapies against Alzheimer’s disease.
Laureation Address by Miratul Muqit, 21st June 2019
Chancellor, I have the honour to present for the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa, Dr Samantha Budd Haeberlein. Samantha is one of our own, an alumnus, who herself took the same walk as graduands gathered today to be capped and receive her degree from this university. Since then her career trajectory has taken her to global leadership in the search for a cure for the brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease.
Samantha was born and brought up on the South coast of England in Southampton. Her fascination with science began at the age of 11 when she first observed Brownian motion of particles under the microscope. At school science remained her focus, so much so, that at the time of sitting her A-levels she chose to move to a different college from her friends. That was Richard Taunton College which was highly regarded for its teaching of science and this resulted in Samantha being the sole girl in her Maths and Physics classes for 2 years. At this time Samantha was increasingly aware of he revolution occurring in genetics and molecular biology and also its impact on society such as the discovery of DNA fingerprinting by another Dundee honorary doctorate Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1984.
Prior to starting her undergraduate studies in Dundee, Samantha had never been to Scotland but it was the reputation of the university as a powerhouse in molecular biology and life sciences that drew her here. The breadth of courses and lively lecturers (including that of former Principal, Sir Pete Downes) provided her with a language and code as well as passion that continues to burn inside her. But it was the teaching of Professor David Nicholls on the molecular basis of neurotransmission and bioenergetics of neurons that caught her imagination. After graduating with First Class Honours in Biochemistry in 1994, she decided to stay in Dundee to undertake a PhD in David’s lab. Her PhD years proved an exciting period for Samantha where she was involved in using cutting edge technologies such as live cell imaging to uncover fundamental insights into the function of brain cells in both health and disease states. A major highlight during this time was over-turning a long held-theory on the protective role of mitochondria in the regulation of calcium during states when neurons are stressed. This discovery was even more thrilling to Samantha when her findings were repeated by another independent laboratory. Samantha was also involved in a collaboration involving application of scientific knowledge that gave her taste of how science can be useful to wider society.
Armed with a clutch of papers from her PhD, Samantha then joined the laboratory of Stuart Lipton at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School where she continued to study neuroscience mechanisms using biochemical approaches and this environment also brought her closer with research-active physicians interested in applying molecular and cell biology to understanding human health and disease. She subsequently moved with the Lipton lab to the Sanford Burnham Institute in San Diego where she was elevated to an independent group leader position and also began to experience fruitful collaborations and interactions with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies exploring therapeutic strategies for neurological diseases.
The critical juncture in her career came in 2000 when she decided to leave the relative security of academia to join Astra-Zeneca in Sweden. This was a hugely brave decision at that time since Astra-Zeneca had just formed from a merger and were seeking to build capacity in drug discovery of brain disorders perhaps the most challenging area due to poor scientific understanding of this group of diseases. Compounding the risk were prevailing attitudes and prejudices about academics interacting with pharma – something that is not shared in Dundee through its extensive industry links such as the Division of Signal Transduction and Therapy – that remains the longest continuous academic-industry collaboration in the UK.
On joining Astra-Zeneca, Samantha initially had a broad portfolio of disease areas to develop but decided to focus on Alzheimer’s disease. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 50M people are currently affected by Alzheimer’s disease globally and this figure is set to rise dramatically over the coming decades. In the UK alone, the number of patients affected by AD is predicted to top the 1M mark by 2025. Despite huge unmet need in this area, the disease remains incurable with no treatments that can slow the disease process. The disease is due to a build up of protein clumps known as amyloid plaques. Amyloid is generated by abberant cleavage of its precursor protein by an enzyme known as beta-secretase cleaving enzyme or BACE1. Over a decade, Samantha built up a translational science programme in Alzheimer’s. As well as building infrastructure and methods to monitor amyloid accumulation in the brains of patients, the major highlight of this period was the successful development of brain penetrant small molecule inhibitors of BACE1 and taking this through Phase 1 to Phase 3 clinical trials. This led to a major commercialization deal with Lilly.
In 2015 Samantha joined Biogen where she is currently Vice President of Late Stage Clinical Development and responsible for the development of Biogen’s Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Movement Disorders portfolios. Currently Samantha is leading multiple Phase III clinical programs each involving more than 1000 patients across more than 40 countries. These are complex studies involving diverse teams of scientist, clinicians and statisticians and represent the forefront of global efforts to find an effective therapy for Alzheimer’s. In a climate in which many major pharmaceutical companies are stopping or cutting back on investment in dementia drug development, Biogen and the work of Samantha’s teams provide a beacon of hope for all the patients affected by this debilitating disorder.
Samantha Is truly a pioneer of human medicine discovery and her opinion widely sought. She was elected a member of the World Dementia Council established by David Cameron and the G8 in 2012 and she is an advisor to Bill Gates on his Alzheimer’s 5 point plan. She has authored reports on Alzheimer’s to the WHO and FDA in the United States as well as a special issue for TIME magazine. Her work has also been honoured by receiving the 2017 Fierce Women in Biotech Award.
In closing I would like to acknowledge the support Samantha has received from her family throughout and I am delighted that her husband, Markus who has also followed a distinguished path in the pharmaceutical industry, and her two sons are here in the audience today.
Chancellor, I have the honour to invite you to confer upon Samantha Budd Haeberlein the Degree of Doctor of Laws