He's an avid amateur jazz musician who is also one of the world's leading experts on the hottest new thing in biotechnology. British scientist Tom L. Blundell, 58, specializes in structural proteomics--a science that analyzes the proteins in the human genome to discover and develop more effective new drugs.
His pioneering research is helping scientists and drugmakers translate the treasure trove of information yielded from mapping the human genome into new therapies. And Blundell, who heads the University of Cambridge's 500-person biochemistry department, has figured out how to use X-rays and robots to discover in hours what used to take months to learn.
Blundell likens his technology to a lock and key: "The protein is the lock, and the drug that inhibits or activates is the key," he says. "Once you know the structure of the lock, it's possible to design a key that fits it exactly." Blundell is co-founder of a company, Astex Technology Ltd., which develops new drugs and licenses his technology to pharmaceutical giants, such as Britain's AstraZeneca (AZN). Blundell's research, for example, has already led to advances in AIDS treatments.
He's also examining a group of enzymes that metabolize drugs, which will give important information on how medicines react in the body. "This information is relevant to every drug, and it will help inform companies early on about any possible side effects," Blundell says.
Investors are excited by the prospects--even though it takes years for these therapies to go through clinical testing and reach the market. While other biotech companies are struggling to attract capital, the privately owned Astex recently raised $33 million from a handful of European investors, including venture capital firm Advent International. In addition to Cambridge and Astex, Blundell also manages a research group funded by Britain's Wellcome Trust, which is investigating cell signalling systems that control how the body develops.
Blundell's preeminence in biotechnology has made him an invaluable adviser to numerous British governments. Although he says his political sympathies are "very left-leaning," Blundell started his career as a government adviser with Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. "I had to be politically neutral," he concedes. From 1991 to '96, he headed Britain's first biotech and biological sciences research council, charged with developing a world-class biotech industry in Britain. During those years, he managed a $375 million research budget and 8,000 employees. But that didn't stop him from doing his own research, which he did for several hours before dawn each morning and again late at night.
Blundell has always been fascinated by both politics and science. After receiving his PhD from Oxford University in 1967, he entered local politics as chairman of Oxford City Council's planning division. "Life became incredibly complicated. I was running a large city-planning system while continuing my scientific research," he recalls. By 1972, he knew he had to make a choice: science or politics. The former won out. "Science was less frustrating and much more exciting," he says. Thanks to Blundell's innovative technology, the drug discovery process for other scientists will soon be less frustrating as well.