Skip to main content

Dr Fiona Marshall FMedSci, FBPhS, FRSB: oration

Read the oration on Dr Fiona Marshall FMedSci, FBPhS, FRSB for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in June 2016.


Dr Fiona Marshall
Dr Fiona Marshall

Fiona Marshall graduated from Bath in 1987 with a First in Biochemistry. It was immediately clear that she was actually a Pharmacologist at heart, as she then completed a PhD at Cambridge University with a leading Neuropharmacologist of the day, Professor John Hughes. At this time, John was the Director of the Parke-Davis Research Centre, a Pharma-funded academic Unit affiliated to the University, and boundaries between research in acadaemia and the pharmaceutical industry were becoming increasingly blurred. This probably influenced Fiona’s decision to join Glaxo in 1990 as Group Leader in Neuropharmacology. She made rapid progress to become UK Department Head for Molecular Pharmacology by 1999. I met Fiona when she was industrial supervisor for a PhD student funded by Glaxo to work in my laboratory. This joint project was, again, a reflection of increasing cross-fertilisation between commercial and academic research. Promoting this interaction has been an admirable cornerstone of Fiona’s research philosophy throughout her career.

In 2000, Fiona was headhunted by Millenium Pharmaceuticals as Director of Molecular Pharmacology, but after two years moved into independent consultancy, working with pharmaceutical, biotechnology and venture capital companies. This was intended to balance working life with raising her two young children. However, as she spent the next 5 years combining consultancy with visiting academic appointments at the Universities of Cambridge, York and Sheffield it’s not clear how successful this balancing act was!

In 2007, Fiona made a bold move, co-founding with Malcolm Weir her own Pharma/Biotech company, Heptares. This was spun out from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. The name derives from ‘Hepta’, the Greek for the number 7, and refers to the structure of a superfamily of biological receptors known as G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). Fiona already had a considerable reputation in this field, publishing in Nature in 1998 the first description of the cloning and structural requirements of the GABAB receptor, a major member of this superfamily. The company ethos is to develop drugs targeting GPCRs, through rational design of compounds based on detailed knowledge of receptor structure. Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, cancer and migraine have already progressed to clinical development.

Fiona continues to be proactive in promoting links with acadaemia, funding collaborations and using the unique expertise of Heptares to translate academic discoveries into therapies. The success of Heptares has resulted in rapid growth and, in 2015, the Sosei Group Corporation acquired it for $400 million. Fiona remains as CSO at Heptares, but is now also Executive VP and CSO for Sosei. Despite these demanding roles, she remains accessible, and always finds time to engage and encourage young scientists to learn and gain experience in drug discovery.

Fiona has always been in demand as an expert voice on advisory groups and committees for government, research councils and charities, including, currently, on the Board of Trustees for Alzheimer’s Research UK. She is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Pharmacological Society and the Society for Biology. In 2015 she was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Malcolm Campbell Award for seminal contributions to GPCR drug discovery. In 2012 she received the WISE Women of Outstanding Achievement for Innovation and Entrepreneurship award, which celebrates women who create change, make discoveries, innovate processes, establish new ventures, and help the UK excel in science and technology. She has recently been appointed a Women in Innovation Ambassador by the government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

Dr Fiona Marshall is a major contributor to pharmaceutical science, committed to excellence in research, breaking down barriers between commercial and academic enterprise, and advancing the participation of women in science and technology.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dr Fiona Marshall FMedSci, FBPhS, FRSB who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Professor Roland Jones

On this page