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Meet the researchers - Professor Tony Magee

Prof Tony Magee

Professor Tony Magee is Professor of Membrane Biology at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London and Head of the Section of Molecular Medicine.

Prof Magee’s PCRF-funded project focuses on a group of proteins called ‘Hedgehogs’ which are active in 70 per cent of pancreatic tumours. Hedgehog proteins are active in tumours because an enzyme called ‘Hhat’ coats them in fats, allowing them to stick to healthy cells and release molecules which in turn promote tumour growth. Prof Magee’s team is investigating ways of preventing Hhat from working, which could be developed into new drugs.

What’s your background?
I’m from London originally but went to the University of Sheffield to study Biochemistry. Not only was it far enough away from the family home – very important to my fledgling independence - Sheffield was also a great city to be a student. The Biochemistry Department was famous for the work of Sir Hans Krebs who identified two important metabolic cycles, the urea cycle and the citric acid cycle. The latter became known as the Krebs cycle, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1953.

How did you get from there to pancreatic cancer?
Rather than continue on to postgraduate study, I decided to earn some money and became a paid research assistant to John Hermon-Taylor, a gastrointestinal surgeon based at The London Hospital in Whitechapel. I worked on the enzyme that activates digestive enzymes which are secreted from the pancreas, which was interesting, but it was a post-doctoral appointment in St Louis in the US that developed the interest that eventually led me back to pancreatic cancer. Whilst there, my lab head Milton Schlesinger, a senior virologist, gave me the choice to work on the addition of lipids to proteins – and that’s been the theme of my career ever since. After three years, I returned to the UK as a post-doc at the MRC lab in Mill Hill, London and eventually became Head of a Section. Most recently, I’ve been studying the attachment of lipids to Hedgehog proteins and I realised that this work was important to pancreatic cancer. A collaboration with Hemant Kocher at Barts led me to apply for a PCRF grant, along with my colleague Ed Tate in the Department of Chemistry.

Do you think there will be any advances in pancreatic cancer diagnosis or treatment soon?
There’s a lot more interest in pancreatic cancer now, with major funding bodies awarding research grants. In fact, my recent CRUK grant was leveraged because of the progress made in my PCRF-funded research. My focus is on potential treatments, but an enduring problem with pancreatic cancer is the lack of early diagnosis tests, so any progress in this area will have a huge impact.

Who’s in your research group?
I supervise two PhD students, one PCRF-funded post-doc and two CRUK-funded post-docs. As I’m senior in my career now I really enjoy leading my research group and nurturing the next generation of scientists in the same way that I was mentored early on in my career. It’s fascinating to see the range of abilities they have. I encourage them all, but if I spot someone that has the potential to become an independent academic PI, I try and ensure they maximise their potential.

Away from work, how do you relax?
As I work three days a week in London and two days a week from home in Ilkley, Yorkshire, I spend a lot of time travelling! Although I was brought up in West London, not far from Imperial College in fact, my wife’s from the North-East. We chose Ilkley as the place to raise our children - two girls age 11 and 6 - because of its access to London, Leeds, York and Manchester as well as its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales for family outings, walking and cycling. When I’m not ferrying the children around to their various hobbies, I’m also a dedicated fan of many sports especially, cricket, rugby and football.

Hear more about the PCRF-funded project