A Women in Science event that took place in Newcastle upon Tyne’s Biosphere business incubator earlier this year certainly demonstrated that women are finally coming into their own in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths.
In this, the first in a three-part series, HELEN COMPSON talks to one of those present, Dr Shaheda Ahmed, of Alcyomics Ltd.
he devastating diagnosis meted out to the second of her three children changed the course of Shaheda Ahmed’s life.
Before motherhood, she worked in business and finance, but the arrival of a very poorly Zaid proved to be the fulcrum by which the balance tipped in favour of a new career, as a research scientist.
It was eight months before medics could finally put a name to the condition that was taking her new-born son in and out of hospital – 22q11.2 deletion syndrome.
A disorder caused by the absence of a small piece of chromosome 22, the deletion occurs near the middle of the chromosome at a location designated q11.2.
And as she was to learn, it can bring with it a whole host of problems, among them recurrent infections due to a weak immune system, facial deformity, speech and learning difficulties and autism spectrum disorder.
She counts her blessings though that Zaid, who is now 24, escaped the congenital heart abnormalities that can also be a symptom.
Today, she is Doctor Shaheda Ahmed, scientific manager for Alcyomics Ltd, a Newcastle University spinout company founded by Prof. Anne Dickinson.
The latter is the expert in immunobiology who developed human skin-based in vitro assays for predicting clinical responses prior to clinical trials.
The ability to do so greatly reduces the risk of there being a repeat of the disastrous outcome of the infamous TGN1412 drug trial, carried out by US company Parexel in a private clinic at London’s Northwick Park Hospital in 2006.
Then, in what was christened by the press ‘the Elephant Man trial’, six healthy young men ended up in intensive care after suffering catastrophic immune responses and multiple organ failure – one with his head double the normal size.
Parexel hoped TGN1412, a drug that manipulated the immune system, could be a treatment for leukaemia and rheumatoid arthritis.
The men’s reactions to the drug were caused by a “cytokine storm”, in which the body releases too many of the immune system regulating cytokines into the bloodstream at once.
The Skimune® test developed by Prof. Dickinson and her team can not only predict whether a drug is likely to cause an adverse event or drug hypersensitivity reaction, their published data (* see addendum below) also conveys how the frequency of positive tests in Skimune® directly correlates with frequency of drug hypersensitivity reactions observed in the clinic.
The data, therefore, can inform risk profiles by giving an indication if the test drug is likely to cause a rare, uncommon, common or frequent drug hypersensitivity reaction – invaluable information, of course, for drug developers.
Dr Ahmed said: “Drug companies send us the compound they are developing and we test it in-house.
“If it has the capacity to activate the human immune system, they can go back and either modify the formula by removing peptides or eliminate the candidate drug altogether, preventing ‘late failure’.
“It can take 12 to 14 years and millions to billions of pounds to get a drug to market, clinical trials are very costly and often at this point they could be rejected because of a bad reaction with the human immune system.
“By using our tests, they get a very early indication of any adverse effects, before they have spent all that time and money in clinical trials and members of the public have been exposed to substances adversely.”
Nowadays, Dr Ahmed’s working environment is shaped by cell and molecular biology and human skin explant assay – a far cry from her years working for the Post Office and a bank.
It has been quite a journey. Zaid was four and just starting nursery when she took the plunge. “I was completely driven by his condition, which is known as DiGeorge Syndrome,” she said
“I wanted to know what caused it, what sort of research was going on in this area and how I could get into the field myself.”
Because she had been out of education for a while, her point of return was a Higher Education Certificate and courses in human biology, ecology and chemistry.
That involved attending three-hour-long classes three nights a week, and all while she had three children under the age of six. “It was hard work, but it was refreshing,” she said. “I felt like I had my own space and I could talk to other people outside the home.”
But thank goodness she’d had the support of her husband and family throughout, she said, because she had met with precious little understanding or support for working mothers externally along the way.
“You tend to find most women in this field don’t have or delay having children, because they don’t want it to impact on their careers,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to make that choice.”
Intent on studying genetics, she enrolled on a biology degree course at Newcastle University. “Unfortunately I found out during the first year, when you get to do taster modules, that I wasn’t very good at genetics,” she said wryly. “I was much stronger at biochemistry.
“I did want to understand my son’s condition more thoroughly though, so I did a degree in molecular biology, a combination of biochemistry, genetics and cell biology.”
She also spent time on researching her options post-graduation and was disappointed to learn that the nearest centre for research into DiGeorge Syndrome was in France. Moving the whole family wasn’t an option.
“So I started to look into other diseases, because at the end of the day, whatever field in scientific research you work in, you are contributing to maintaining people’s health,” she said.
In 2003, she got a post at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health, studying for her PhD in oxidative stress and the impact on ageing.
She laughed. “I realised I was a lab creature – I enjoyed the work there and just being in a lab.”
While she was indeed doing bench research that would ultimately benefit society in the long run, that wasn’t enough, she felt. “I wanted to focus on translational medicine, with a quick impact.”
So she moved on, to the academic haematology department at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, led at the time by Prof. Anne Dickinson.
When Dr Ahmed gives talks to life sciences students today, helping to define some of the options and choices that lie ahead of them, it does give her pause for thought.
“I have had an unusually fast-paced career,” she said. “I think that’s just as a result of the opportunities that presented themselves and the choices I’ve made”.
“But when I give career talks to younger scientists, I realise I progressed from being a post-doc to scientific officer to senior scientific officer and then manager all in 10 years.
“I do temper expectations, because I know it isn’t that common.”
*Ahmed SS, Whritenour J, Ahmed M M, Bibby L, Darby L, Wang X N, Watson J, Dickinson A M. Evaluation of a human in vitro skin test for predicting drug hypersensitivity reactions. Toxcicology and Aplied Pharmacology. 2019, 369, 39-48
*Ahmed, SS., Wang, X N., Fielding, M., Kerry, A., Dickinson, I., Munuswamy, R., Kimber, I., and Dickinson, AM. An in vitro human skin test for assessing sensitization potential. J. Appl. Toxicol. 2016, 36(5), 669-684