Phillip Hawkins at the Cambridge Science Festival

enzyme17:55 Monday 17th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[J]OZEF HALL: The next guest might soon be able to tell you how likely you are to get certain diseases. Cambridge-based Dr Phillip Hawkins is one of the most eminent scientists in the UK. His work looks at understanding our genetic code, to see which diseases we are predisposed to. Let’s have a quick chat with him now. Good afternoon .. So you’ve made your way into the studio today from the Barbraham Institute. Tell us a bit about your work.
PHILLIP HAWKINS: We’re interested really in the chemical processes that occur within the first few seconds of a hormone arriving on the outside of a cell. That’s fundamentally what we do.
JOZEF HALL: Why do we need to know this?

PHILLIP HAWKINS: Well that’s a very good question. I think most of your listeners will have heard of certain hormones, like insulin for example. After you have a meal, insulin is released from the pancreas, and it goes through our bloodstream and tells other cells like muscle cells and fat cells to take up the nutrients that are being absorbed through the gut. And unfortunately, when that system goes wrong, you can end up with diabetes. Some of the other hormones people might be less familiar with, growth factors, these tell cells when to develop and grow. And when this goes wrong, it can have some pretty dire consequences. For example, when growth factor signalling goes wrong, it can drive too much growth in cancers, leading to tumour formation. So we really need to understand the molecular mechanisms, to try and interfere when it goes wrong.
JOZEF HALL: And of course this is something you’re talking to, as part of the fortnight of the Cambridge Science Festival.
PHILLIP HAWKINS: That’s right.
JOZEF HALL: You’re giving a speech tomorrow night. So in a nutshell, I’m definitely no scientist, but if you can nip it in the bud, you can stop the cancers from growing, stop those hormones from reacting.
PHILLIP HAWKINS: Yes. So together with my colleague Len Stevens at the Babraham Institute, we were lucky enough to discover a new enzyme that makes a new molecule, just inside the cell, where the hormone binds to the outside. And this is like a green light for telling the cell to grow and move. And work from several other laboratories has indicated that you get too much of this signal in many human cancers. So this then gives the pharmaceutical industry a clue as to how to interfere with this process, and hopefully develop some new drugs that can halt tumour growth.
JOZEF HALL: Now when you give this talk tomorrow evening, is this going to be news to everyone there? Is this earthbreaking stuff, or are you going to be surrounded by an audience that knows most of this?
PHILLIP HAWKINS: (LAUGHS) I don’t think I’m going to be surrounded by an audience that knows most of this. But this is the product of twenty or thirty years research. This isn’t something that’s happened in the last few months. I have to say normally I speak to an audience full of scientists in my field, so this is a nice opportunity to speak to a wider audience. And I suspect many people will turn up there who won’t really know our work, or be familiar with it. So I hope it will be news to them.
JOZEF HALL: Just briefly, how quickly can we see your science on the shelves in pill form?
PHILLIP HAWKINS: That’s an excellent question. I’d say the lead drug candidates at the moment are going through clinical trials. And the lead candidate at the moment is seeking FDA approval in the States. So I’m hoping in the next two to five years we’ll find out what the potential for this field really is.
JOZEF HALL: Most exciting stuff. Thanks for coming in and talking to us. That’s Dr Phillip Hawkins. His talk at the Cambridge Science Festival will be tomorrow evening.
PHILLIP HAWKINS: Thanks very much.