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Professor Janet Darbyshire awarded 2017 MRC Millennium Medal

26 Jan 2018

The MRC recognised the lifetime achievements of Professor Janet Darbyshire CBE FMedSci at our Millennium Medal Award Ceremony at the House of Commons on 24 January.

Rt Hon Lord Henley shaking the hand of Millennium Medal award winner Professor Janet Darbyshire

Baroness Onora O’Neill hosted the event and the Rt Hon Lord Henley, the minister with responsibility for life sciences and industrial strategy, presented the medal to Janet. Leading figures attended the event from the field of medical research, along with MRC Council and Strategy Board members, and Janet’s friends and family.

The ceremony was preceded by a showcase of some of the leading research supported by the MRC. Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum met researchers and learnt about their successes as well as the challenges they face.

On presenting Janet’s medal, Lord Henley said: “I was thrilled to present the Millennium Medal to Professor Janet Darbyshire, the first female recipient of this award and an inspiration to female scientists around the world. Her work has had a truly global impact and her research has been vitally important to the UK scientific community.

“Janet’s knowledge and expertise in clinical trials have ensured that we develop safe and effective medicines, saving millions of lives and preventing disease in the UK and across the world. This is exactly the type of research and innovation our Industrial Strategy will support, building a Britain fit for the future and setting a path to lead the world in high-tech, highly-skilled industries.”

Janet is one of the UK’s leading clinical trialists and epidemiologists. Her expertise in research methodology has underpinned her study of diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, which has led to improvements in prevention and treatment across the world.

She established the MRC Clinical Trials Unit (CTU) at UCL as an internationally recognised centre of excellence for clinical trials, meta-analyses and epidemiological studies. Her expertise has been crucial in advising the UK government on the safety, quality and efficacy of medicines.

Professor Darbyshire delivering her acceptance speech

On receiving the award, Janet said: “I’m honoured and delighted to be awarded an MRC Millennium Medal and it’s a particular pleasure to be the first woman to receive one. In my 36 years with the MRC, long-term support across a range of disciplines was needed to run a large programme of clinical trials which helped to improve the survival of tuberculosis and HIV patients. Early on I learned the importance of team science and I’ve had the privilege to work with so many great people, including statisticians, clinicians and patients. I’m proud to have been part of the MRC’s international role in developing clinical trials and trial methodology.”

Sir John Savill commented: “Thanks to Janet’s leading work on clinical trials, based on her deep understanding of tuberculosis, HIV in Africa is no longer a death sentence. Her work has brought enormous benefits to HIV positive patients in Africa through demonstrating the efficacy of low-cost, life-saving treatment. The MRC Clinical Trials Unit is one legacy of her work, a world-leading establishment pioneering new and more flexible forms of clinical trial. She’s given tremendous service to patients, researchers, research funders, industry and medicines regulators through her expertise in clinical trials. These are remarkable contributions from which millions of people have benefited. We’re immensely proud of her contributions – to global society, the UK and to the MRC.”

Janet continues to contribute to the development and strengthening of the scientific, logistical and practical infrastructure for clinical trials in the UK and Africa. She is recognised by her colleagues as an outstanding leader and a valued team member, who set high standards that encouraged and inspired her colleagues.

Commenting on Janet’s award, Professor Andrew Nunn, Senior Statistician at MRC CTU, said: “Janet was always a pleasure to work with, encouraging both junior and senior scientific staff. Clinical trials research is a team activity and Janet was a strong team member and an inspirational leader. She made every member of the team feel they were important to the success of the research.”

Professor Diana Gibb, Programme Leader at MRC CTU, said: “Janet was wonderful to work with and for. She always had good ideas and she knew how to make complex relationships, such as can occur in large networks, work. She was a superb scientist, she shared her long experience freely and was the best kind of role model someone like me could ever wish for.”

Lord John Sharkey talking to Professor Janet Darbyshire

The Millennium Medal is the MRC’s most prestigious award, presented every two years to an outstanding scientist who has made a major contribution towards the MRC’s mission to improve human health through world class medical research. It recognises those who currently or have previously received MRC funding.

Previous winners include Professor Sir Brian Greenwood, for reinventing field research in tropical medicine; Dr Cesar Milstein, for his pioneering work on monoclonal antibodies; Professor Tom Meade, for his contribution to UK health, particularly in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease; and Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, who played an instrumental role in the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Further information about award-winner Professor Janet Darbyshire:

After qualifying in medicine at The University of Manchester in 1970, Janet held positions at the Manchester Royal Infirmary and subsequently moved to London where she specialised in respiratory medicine. She also has an MSc in epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In 1974 Janet joined the UK MRC Tuberculosis and Chest Diseases Unit (Brompton Hospital), coordinating a programme of clinical trials of tuberculosis treatments in Africa. The outcome of these trials played a key role in the establishment of the standard short-course chemotherapy treatment for tuberculosis worldwide. In 1986, she was appointed Head of the MRC Cardiothoracic Epidemiology Group at the National Heart and Lung Institute, continuing her research in tuberculosis in Africa and the UK as well as in asthma and other respiratory diseases. 

In 1989, Janet became head of the new MRC HIV Clinical Trials Centre in London. She applied her experience in tuberculosis to develop a programme of clinical trials to tackle HIV infection, establishing an international collaboration in Europe and Australia.

As antiretroviral drugs became available in Africa she played an instrumental role in the Microbicides Development Programme (MDP) to prevent HIV infection which involved 10,000 healthy women and the Development of AntiRetroviral treatment in Africa (DART) trial which involved over 3,000 men and women with HIV infection. Janet also played a major role in the establishment and work of the International Network for Strategic Initiatives in Global HIV Trials (INSIGHT) and served on its Executive Committee until 2009. INSIGHT became one of the largest international collaborative research groups in HIV involving over 250 clinical research sites in 25 countries across the world. This body of research generated evidence leading to a paradigm shift in the understanding of HIV pathogenesis and changes in HIV treatment and prevention and involved the engagement of international collaborators, industry and patient groups.

Another significant legacy of Janet’s work on HIV was the building and strengthening of clinical research capacity, particularly in countries with little or no previous experience in clinical trials. Between 2010 and 2016 she was the inaugural Chair of the Joint Global Health Trials scheme, funded by the MRC, Department for International Development, and Wellcome and now the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), that generates new knowledge about interventions to improve health in low- and middle-income countries.

In 1998 Janet established, and became director of, the MRC CTU. She oversaw the unit’s programmes of clinical research in cancer, HIV infection and other diseases including arthritis, tuberculosis and mental health, supporting the development of clinical trial groups in areas that previously had little or no established clinical trials infrastructure.

Janet also played a key role in establishing what is now the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) serving alongside Professor Peter Selby CBE FMedSci, as its Joint Director from 2005 until 2010. The CRN has resulted in considerable improvements in the infrastructure support for clinical research in England and ensures that studies across many areas of medicine, including cancer and diabetes, have the best chance of success.

For over 20 years Janet was a highly respected member of the Commission on Human Medicines, and its predecessor, the UK Committee on Safety of Medicines, and she has also frequently provided advice to the European Medicines Agency.

She has worked closely with patient and carer groups to involve them in medical research, particularly in HIV infection and cancer, and is a member of many Trial Steering and Data Monitoring Committees.

Janet is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal College of Physicians and the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. She was awarded an OBE in 1996 and a CBE in 2010 for services to clinical sciences.

Janet continues to contribute to the development and strengthening of the scientific, logistical and practical infrastructure for clinical trials in the UK and Africa. Her support for the next generation of researchers includes her role as a mentor for the Academy of Medical Sciences mentoring scheme. 


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