Scientist Focus: Fiona Marshall


By Robin Brisbourne | Thursday 20 August 2015

FMDr Fiona Marshall is a neuroscientist working on treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. Dr Marshall also volunteers as an Alzheimer’s Research UK Trustee, lending her expertise and passion for dementia research to help support the work of the charity.

Name and job title

Dr Fiona Marshall, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Heptares Therapeutics.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Yes – ever since my first ‘Nature studies’ classes in junior school. I went through stages of wanting to be a marine biologist (thanks to Jacques Cousteau), zoologist (thanks to David Attenborough), doctor (suggested by my parents and teachers) and finally decided on research.

What has been your career path to date?

I did a degree in Biochemistry at the University of Bath. While I was there, I became interested in studying important proteins on nerve cells called receptors. Receptors respond to chemical messengers in the brain and they are a key target for medications. I specialised in neuroscience and went on to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. I then joined Glaxo Pharmaceuticals Neuropharmacology Department where I was assigned to the Alzheimer’s team. I kept my interest in brain receptors and went on to lead a team of researchers studying them in more detail. After 10 years I left and joined a US based biotechnology company. In order to balance working life and raising two children I spent five years as a consultant while lecturing in Cambridge.

What are you working on at the moment?

I was a founder and am the Chief Scientific Officer of Heptares Therapeutics. We are a drug discovery and development company working on treatments targeting receptors in the brain and elsewhere. Using a technique called X-ray crystallography we are able to design more specific and safer drugs for a wide range of diseases. Our lead project is a receptor involved in learning and memory which is activated by a chemical messenger which declines in Alzheimer’s. We have developed a panel of potential drugs which will mimic the actions of this chemical messenger on the brain. Our first compound is in clinical trials and has the potential to treat memory loss in Alzheimer’s as well as other types of dementia and schizophrenia.

What would you say to someone considering a career in science?

A career in science gives the chance to discover new things about us, and the world around us. You have the chance to make a difference to other people’s lives. It’s incredibly rewarding and always changing as new discoveries are made. You also get the chance to work with so many interesting people from different backgrounds and perspectives. The UK in particular has a flourishing environment for medical research and other tech industries and we need more people trained in science, maths and engineering.

What made you decide to get involved with Alzheimer’s Research UK?

Some of the most exciting and cutting edge medical research in the UK is funded by charities which can focus their efforts on long term benefit to people affected by dementia. We are at last starting to understand the causes of dementia and there are many possible approaches to treat and ultimately prevent symptoms occurring. I joined the Trustees of ARUK to help with the new initiatives in Drug Discovery. As a result of the leaps forward in understanding the disease we can now allocate charity money to developing new treatments in addition to basic research. Working together with universities and companies, there is a fantastic opportunity to finally stop dementia in its tracks.

What does your role as Trustee entail?

A Trustee’s role is to ensure the correct running of the charity in particular from the point of view of ensuring that money from donors is used as effectively as possible for patient benefit. The board of Trustees works closely together as a team to support the running of the charity, with careful consideration to the finances. We are also there to support the Alzheimer’s Research UK Management team in their roles. My role in particular involves working closely with the Research team and providing input into the charity’s drug discovery initiatives. I also attend some of the meetings where dementia experts make decisions about which research projects the charity should fund.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love travelling and try to visit as many new places as possible. We have a map on the wall where the family have different coloured pins which we put in to each country we visit. I particularly love watching wildlife in Africa having been born in Kenya and I am passionate about wildlife conservation. Our next trip is to the Galapagos Islands which is a pilgrimage for anyone who is interested in biology.

What’s one thing you can’t live without?

Search engines – especially Google, PubMed and TripAdvisor. It really is amazing how much information is freely available at the touch of a button. This is invaluable for doing scientific research but also allows you to be a virtual traveller visiting each hotel, restaurant and destination online before you go there. How did we ever manage before the internet?


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About the author

Robin Brisbourne