An interview with Professor Stephen Inglis

January 2020

Stephen Inglis is Honorary Professor, Division of Infection and Immunity, University College London and was previously Director of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC). He is a member of the Microbiology Society and in this interview, he tells us more about his research, including how he has worked to ensure that vaccines are safe and effective for people around the world. 

Stephen Inglis
© Stephen Inglis

Tell us more about your research.

I started out my scientific career after completing a degree in biochemistry, working on influenza virus in Cambridge. It was an exciting time, when techniques for gene mapping and sequencing were just becoming available to explore molecular biology. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with my first love – viruses, ever since. 

After 15 years in academic research, and 10 years in a start-up biotechnology company developing virus-based vaccines and therapeutics, I ended up as the Director of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), and had the job of ensuring that biological medicines, and in particular vaccines against infectious diseases, are as safe and effective as possible for people all around the world. 

Why does your research matter to microbiology?

Throughout my working life, and particularly during my time at NIBSC, I’ve been constantly reminded of the crucial role microbiology plays in keeping us safe and healthy. There are so many examples I could mention such as watching the initial tentative research linking HPV with cervical cancer, which lead (20 years later), to a hugely successful vaccine; marvelling as microbiologists worked out the causes of the terrifying AIDS epidemic, and developed highly effective drug therapies against HIV. I have worked with the World Health Organization to achieve the three of its eight millennium goals that aim to reduce infectious disease, and deal with major global public health scares, such as the outbreaks of pandemic influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola. 

Now in retirement– through my role on the Scientific Advisory Board of The Pirbright Institute, I see first-hand, the importance of microbiology in the veterinary world, which is to understand the pathogenesis of viral diseases and to combat infections through effective surveillance, vaccination and the development of disease resistant strains. 

I’d like to say that I understood all this when I started working in the field all those years ago, but I really didn’t. I just wanted to understand how a simple bundle of genes and proteins like influenza, could take over a cell to make fresh copies of itself and wreak such havoc. I suspect many new microbiologists of my generation – and perhaps later ones too – had a similarly narrow perspective. Put them all together, however, and they are immensely powerful – they really can change the world.

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