Prize lecture Q&A - Professor Sharon Peacock

12 April 2018

Our Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from the membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Unilever Colworth Prize Lecture, Colman O'Cathail, from our membership, interviewed Professor Sharon Peacock to find out what inspires her, learn more about her work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

The 2018 Unilever Colworth Prize, sponsored by Unilever Research’s Colworth Laboratory, will be awarded to Professor Sharon Peacock CBE from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Sharon uses whole genome sequencing technology in public health, increasing the speed of outbreak analysis, and was clinical lead on the first study to use next generation sequencing approaches to analyse local and global transmission patterns of Staphylococcus aureus. Sharon has worked with local hospitals and regional microbiology services to implement sequence-based approaches to clinical microbiology, demonstrating that genetic sequence data can be used to direct interventions during ongoing outbreaks. In 2015, Sharon was awarded a CBE for services to medical microbiology.

You began your career as a physician? What motivated you to transition into research as a career?

I had several career changes before I began medical school when I was 24. Looking back, this early diversity of experience has had a major influence on my life choices. After qualifying as a doctor and working as a physician for a several years I was sure that I would become a cardiologist, but a job move to Oxford led to the opportunity to combine training in research and clinical microbiology. The motivation for this was a deep interest in the subject and the opportunity to explore new ideas and help others to do the same.

Did you find the transition from clinical medicine into research difficult?

For me (and I think for many clinical academics), this is not an ‘either/or’ situation where clinical medicine and research are distinct from each other. Although clinical academics may move away from treating patients every day, many will remain closely connected with patients and their clinical care. This also generates a rich source of important clinically relevant questions and challenges that need to be addressed by research that spans from fundamental through to translational. Answering your question more directly, over time my research took up an increasing amount of time and focus, and so I barely noticed a transition from clinical medicine into clinical research, if there really is one!

Did you find that your  background as a clinician influenced the translational aspects of your work?

Yes, definitely. As a clinical microbiologist and as a physician I was treating patients with infectious diseases. I knew first-hand what it was like to investigate outbreaks and treat patients. When sequencing came to the forefront I realised that it could completely change the way we approach these problems. Sequencing has the ability to get ahead of outbreaks. If we were to sequence bacteria as they come through our labs then outbreaks can be caught at very early stages. So I suppose having a view from ‘both sides’ means I can quite clearly see how clinical microbiology and research fit together in the wider puzzle.

The Unilever Colworth Prize is awarded to someone ‘who has demonstrated outstanding contribution to translational microbiology’. What’s the translational aspect of your work?

My research group are translating bacterial genome sequencing into routine clinical and public health microbiology. This has two major types of application. The first is in infectious disease outbreak detection and investigation. Until recently, detecting outbreaks largely depended on surveillance of cases supported by epidemiological investigation. The bacterial typing methods available lacked enough discrimination to definitively confirm or refute relatedness between bacteria isolated at the time of the suspected outbreak. Genome sequencing overcomes this limitation. Bacterial sequencing could also take a leading rather than supporting role in outbreak detection, if used to routinely sequence those bacterial species that are often implicated in outbreaks. By comparing the relatedness of their genomes, this could flag potential outbreaks much earlier and lead to targeted investigation and interventions to prevent further cases. The second application is to detect the presence of genes encoding antibiotic resistance, from which it is possible to predict phenotypic antibiotic susceptibility. The advantage this has over other molecular methods is that it examines the entire genetic repertoire rather than specific genes and so is an efficient method of detection, and can also spot the new or unexpected. The limiting factor at the moment is the time it takes to perform sequencing and then interpret the data. But these limitations are in the process of being overcome.

Did you ever envision genomics being such an important part of microbiology when you began your career?

The rate of change in genome sequencing technologies and its relevance to diagnostic and public health microbiology is not something that I could have predicted at the start of my career.

Did you feel like genomics was the direction your research was taking in general?

I returned from the Wellcome Unit in Thailand in 2009 and much of the work I was doing there didn't really apply to the UK. So I had to rethink what I wanted to put research time and energy into. Once I had decided on genomics as a research path I really had to immerse myself in the research and information about it as, up until that point, my experience with genomics had been relatively limited.

Do you think that nothing has changed the way we examine infectious diseases like genomics?

No, genomics is just one of the extraordinary scientific tools we now have at our disposal, and takes its place alongside an array of other technologies. This includes advances in imaging technologies, genome editing, and advances in stem cell research. Big Data and AI are also likely to have a major role in the study of infectious diseases in populations.

What will you be talking about in your presentation today?

The translation of bacterial genome sequencing into clinical and public health microbiology. That journey for me and all the lessons I've learned in that time.

What, if any, has been the most surprising moment of your career?

Not so much a surprising moment, as a surprising decade. In particular, the realisation of the extraordinary speed at which technology has developed in the last 10 years, which has huge implications for the way we undertake science, treat patients, and live our lives.

What does winning the Unilever Colworth Prize mean to you?

I am thrilled to win this prestigious prize, which reflects the immense hard work and dedication of my outstanding research group over the last 10 years. I am grateful to each of them, who are all as passionate as I am about the work they do and have a shared purpose to translate a technology that will improve the quality and impact of diagnostic and public health microbiology. A big thank you!

This lecture takes place today at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference at 17:40 in Hall 1.

Inspired by our outstanding Prize winners? Nominations for 2019 Prize Lectures and the 2020 Prize Medal are now open.

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Image: UCL.