Pro-Chancellor, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you and the congregation Dr Alastair Lawson, Vice President and Immunology Fellow at UCB Pharma, a global biopharmaceutical company focused on the development of treatments for severe diseases in immunology and neurology.
Our immune system protects our body against outside invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Antibodies are the ultimate defence molecules our body produces to help protect us against these disease-causing microbes. Our bodies can generate millions of unique antibodies and they all have a small region at the tip of the protein, which is extremely variable, allowing all these unique antibodies to recognise many thousands of different features on the surface of microbes and cells. It is this ability to recognize molecules with incredible specificity that makes antibodies very attractive tools for researchers and clinicians. In the clinic, for example, they are used in a variety of blood tests to diagnose certain infectious diseases and I’m sure all of you have used lateral flow tests, which also use antibodies that can detect the presence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Because of their specificity, antibodies have been shown to be effective treatments for a variety of autoimmune diseases and cancers, and it is here that Alastair Lawson has made his mark.
He joined the company Celltech (now UCB Pharma) in 1983, having obtained a PhD at the Tenovus Research Laboratory at Southampton General Hospital. Since joining, Alastair has led UCBs antibody discovery platform and his involvement has had a significant impact on the development of numerous new treatments for debilitating diseases such as leukaemia, osteoporosis, and a range of autoimmune diseases, including Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. The societal impact of these discoveries is huge and especially Alastair’s seminal contribution to the development of the first chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR-T therapy) has revolutionised the field of cancer treatments, spawning a completely novel class of therapeutics.
My colleague Professor Jean van den Elsen was originally due to give this oration but unfortunately due to personal circumstances is not able to be here today. Jean first met Alastair in 2017 and it was their common interest in developing treatments utilising the body’s own immune system that have laid the basis for their successful collaboration. Together with their first joint PhD student, Alex Macpherson, they set out to explore the unique structure of bovine antibodies and discover ways to exploit their potential use for treating inflammatory diseases. What makes the cow’s immune system unique is that around 10% of their antibodies contain a highly variable extension at the tip of the protein, called a knob domain. It was our PhD student Alex who discovered that these knob domains, when isolated from the rest of the antibody, can function autonomously, effectively making tiny antibodies up to 50 times smaller than regular antibodies. The potential medical implications of the new antibodies’ small size are huge. For instance, they may bind to sites on pathogens or cancer cells that regular antibody molecules are too large to latch on to. They may also be able to gain access to sites of the body which larger antibodies cannot, or even enter cells more easily. I foresee a great future for these tiny antibodies, and I look forward to the continuation of this group’s fruitful collaboration in this area.
Antibodies have revolutionised biomedical research and the demand for the development of monoclonal antibodies for future treatments is ever increasing. Alastair’s seminal contributions to this field and his vision have truly transformed the use of antibodies as effective treatments. It is therefore with great pride Pro-Chancellor, that I present to you Dr Alastair Lawson, who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.