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Professor John Atack

Professor John Atack
Professor John Atack

I’m Professor John Atack, I am a molecular pharmacologist with over 25 years of drug discovery experience, primarily in the field of neuroscience, and the Director of the Medicines Discovery Institute.

What does medicines discovery mean to you?

Medicines discovery means trying to make a difference to people suffering from a variety of medical conditions, whether they be mental health related or otherwise, with the aim of improving their day to day lives.

Why are you interested in this as a researcher?

My primary focus is disorders of the brain and that interest originated from my PhD studies into Alzheimer’s disease at a time when hardly anyone had heard of the disease. There is something profoundly fascinating about how the brain works but equally disturbing about what can happen when the brain does not work properly.

The process of drug discovery is a long, arduous, convoluted and highly unpredictable process which requires a dogged determination and a clear focus on the goal – making patients better. It is this patient focus that makes all the trials and tribulations of drug discovery so worthwhile since we have the potential to change the lives of millions of people.

Could you tell me about your research at the moment?

The current focus of the MDI is to identify drugs that alter the chemical imbalances that underlie most brain disorders. Redressing these chemical imbalances sounds like a fairly simple process but we need to walk a fine line between correcting the imbalance and overdoing it and creating a different imbalance.

The brain chemicals, neurotransmitters, that we are currently interested in are fairly simply amino acids called gamma-amino butyric acid and glutamate that produce effects in the brain via complicated mechanisms which we need our biological and medicinal chemistry scientists to tackle. We know that imbalances in these chemicals are associated with schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and Huntington’s disease, which are the disease we currently focus on.

What role does your research play in getting research from bench to bedside?

Our research has a very strong focus on translation in that we translate our understanding of how the brain works, or in disease, does not work, into drugs that can then be used to alleviate the effects of these diseases of the brain.

What does your job involve today?

My day-to-day job involves ensuring that project team members have clear objectives and that projects remain on track towards their predefined milestones. In addition, I am in frequent discussions with external collaborators in order find the quickest and most efficient way of developing our chemical compounds.

I am also continually aware of the need to assemble grant applications to ensure not only the continuity of existing projects but also to translate the innovative science of my Cardiff University colleagues into drug discovery projects and ultimately patient benefit.

How does working within this Institute help you as a researcher?

There is no greater pleasure and reward than working in a multidisciplinary team of scientists all working towards the common goal of trying to address an unmet medical need. We have a strong ethos of collaboration within the Medicines Discovery Institute where biologists learn from chemists and chemists learn from biologists and this proximity to each other is key to our success.

The benefits of proximity also extend to the wider scientific community at Cardiff University which provides easy access to world-leading scientists within, for example, the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute and the UK Dementia Research Institute.