Leaders’ Insights: Prof Luke O’Neill, Trinity College Dublin

1 Jun 2016

Prof Luke O'Neill (second from right) with his Trinity College Dublin team at GSK Stevenage

Prof Luke O’Neill is the chair of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin.

Prof Luke O’Neill is also the chief scientist of Trinity College Dublin spinout Opsona Therapeutics.

Describe your role and what you do.

I am a professor of biochemistry in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). I teach undergraduates and postgraduates and lead a 17-member research team (made up of PhD students and postdoctoral scientists) working in the area of inflammation and inflammatory diseases.

Our mission is to discover the molecules involved in inflammation and to link them to diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS). My own research is focused on the area of the molecular basis of inflammatory diseases, with a particular interest in pro-inflammatory cytokines and Toll-like receptors. I am also chief scientist of Opsona Therapeutics, a spinout from TCD, which is developing a new anti-inflammatory medicine.

I am currently on sabbatical at GSK as part of their Immunology Catalyst programme. This is focused on bringing in academic scientists to work on the frontiers of knowledge in inflammation in a bid to help with the drug discovery effort in GSK.

The Immunology Catalyst is hosted by the Immunology Network at GSK’s world-class R&D facility in Stevenage in the UK. Just six global experts from around the world are participating as part of the network, of which I’m delighted and proud to say I am one.

By bringing in scientists who are working on frontier science, this could give rise to brand new mechanisms and insights and, hopefully, new medicines. I have also been able to bring three of my research team from TCD with me to work alongside me and the wider teams in GSK. It’s a tremendous opportunity for them to develop their careers and learn new skills, as well as advance their own research. It’s very much a two-way exchange: we have access to GSK’s technologies and research tools and, through us, GSK has the opportunity to expand its knowledge of drug discovery and translational research.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

It’s hard work! I have a great team and stay focused on the key jobs. I always use ‘to-do lists’ and you have to be strict in saying no to requests that are not critical to the overall mission.

‘A scientist is only as good as his or her idea, and these ideas have to be highly innovative’

What are the biggest challenges facing your work and how are you tackling them?

Fundraising is one of the biggest challenges we face in the industry. Critically, though, we also constantly need new ideas. A scientist is only as good as his or her idea, and these ideas have to be highly innovative. Science by definition is innovation and the objective is for scientists to discover new things and boldly go where no one has gone before.

Collaboration is a key factor in generating new ideas. As scientists, we must regularly get together and discuss key issues and opportunities in order to identify great ideas. The GSK Immunology Network is a great opportunity for scientists to interact with a large healthcare company and access their laboratories to fulfil some of our own research. The initiative acts as a catalyst for ideas, allowing scientists to collaborate using GSK’s facilities to further our own research and contribute to the search for new medicines.

This allows us to bring our own skills and expertise to the table and make use of these fantastic facilities in a bid to develop collaborative research and stimulate innovation in the pursuit of new medicines. It’s all about collaboration really in science, the possibilities of what this network together with GSK could potentially achieve and learn is very exciting.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The desperate need for new medicines! We’re always trying to discover new ways of treating diseases such as osteoarthritis, Crohn’s disease, MS and Alzheimer’s disease.

What set you on the road to where you are in the STEM industry?

A love of science led me down this path. I have a particular fondness for biology, which has also led me to the realisation that I could make a real difference, not just in science but also in the effort to discover new treatments.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Poor recruitment – if you get that wrong you are in trouble.  As a result, I took it upon myself to learn how to recruit properly and it has paid dividends.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Lead by example, foster teamwork and promote autonomy. I tell my team I am not the boss. It’s more of a co-dependent collaboration. I provide ideas and guidance but they do the hard lab work. I always remember reading somewhere that for a team to be successful, members must have three things: mastery (they have to acquire skills as scientists in a lab and get great satisfaction from that mastery); autonomy (they have to be doing it largely for themselves), and purpose (medical research is hugely purposeful). I tell them they need all three.

‘I took it upon myself to learn how to recruit properly and it has paid dividends’

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

It’s getting better, but it’s important to remind everyone that only ideas and hard work count. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you can make a difference.

Who is your business hero and why?

Mark Heffernan, the first CEO of Opsona. He taught me a huge amount about commercialisation.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

A recent one that is great is called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – a superb account of the history of our species and why we are the way we are. Also contains a great account of how we became scientists and why science to such an important activity.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Phone and email but, most importantly, human contact! Science is actually highly collaborative and so getting together with other scientists is critical. It’s more fun, as two heads are better than one, and new ideas can happen over a cup of coffee.