Monday 13 June 2016

Knighthood for mitochondrial disease expert

Doug Turnbull, Professor of Neurology who has devoted his career to ground-breaking IVF treatment and research that prevents devastating mitochondrial disease, has been awarded a Knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Professor Doug Turnbull, NIHR Biomedical Research Centre theme lead for Mitochondria and Neuromuscular disease research and Professor of Neurology at Newcastle University, started work as a junior doctor in 1976.  Since then, he has made the understanding of mitochondrial disease his life’s work – caring for over 1000 patients and their families who deal with the effects of a genetic disorder that at its most severe causes blindness, heart failure and ultimately death.

In 2012 his work was also recognised when he and his colleagues were awarded the coveted Wellcome Trust Centre status, one of only nine in the UK.  As Director, Doug has built an internationally renowned team of clinicians and researchers, with patients opting to travel from all over the country to be under his care.

He commented: “I am delighted to receive this knighthood. I am privileged to work with a dedicated group of colleagues and we all work together to improve the lives of patients with mitochondrial disease.”

While the treatments he and his colleagues at Newcastle University provide have improved the quality of life for hundreds of patients, preventing these disabling genetic diseases is crucially important for families. Certain forms of mitochondrial disease are passed down from mother to child. Mitochondrial donation, a new IVF technique developed in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research, offers women with mitochondrial disease the chance of having healthy children.

Doug has worked tirelessly with patients, patient organisations and policy makers to champion Mitochondrial Donation, and these efforts were rewarded last year when the UK parliament voted to allow this ground-breaking treatment to be offered to patients.

Leading future generations

Under his inspiring leadership, Doug has trained over 40 PhD students who have then taken on work in this important area here in Newcastle, and across the world.

He developed and leads the NHS National Highly Specialised Services for Rare Mitochondrial Diseases of Children and Adults and is Director of the Newcastle University Centre for Brain Ageing and Vitality, supported by the MRC and BBSRC. He is an Honorary Consultant Neurologist at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.  He is also an NIHR Senior Fellow and has sat on, and chaired, several Wellcome Trust Panels/Committees during his career.

Doug has been recognised by the Royal College of Physicians on several occasions: awarded the Goulstonian Lecturer (1992), the Jean Hunter Prize (2003) and the Sims Royal College of Physicians Lecturer (2004).

Professor Avan Sayer, Director of the NIHR Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre paid tribute; “In addition to being the driving force behind ground-breaking developments in mitochondrial donation for preventing disabling genetic diseases, Doug’s research on mitochondrial function has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the ageing process and its link to many long-term conditions.”

“Doug Turnbull is remarkable. He combines brilliant science with cutting edge clinical practice and his interaction with patients is second to none. Patient and public involvement is key to maximising the relevance and effectiveness of all our research. We are extremely proud that Doug is an integral part of our NIHR Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre and will continue to play a major role in enabling us to realise our vision.”

Patients first

His commitment to patients is what makes his approach particularly special.  When he isn’t working on understanding the disease better within the lab, Doug devotes countless hours supporting a UK-wide patient network.  This includes talks to families, presentations to charities including the Lily Foundation and Muscular Dystrophy, as well as answering around-the-clock queries from patients.

Liz Curtis is CEO of the mitochondrial disease charity, the Lily Foundation, she said: “I set up The Lily Foundation after losing my 8 month old daughter Lily to a mitochondrial disease in April 2008.

“When your child is diagnosed with a condition for which there is no effective treatment and no cure, it is truly heart-breaking. We learned through our doctor about the research that Doug was undertaking in Newcastle and our doctor spoke of Doug as the ‘Guru’ of mitochondrial disease research. In fact, I am sure that anyone affected by mitochondrial disease will know of Doug Turnbull.

“The Lily Foundation is delighted to be able to support the research work at Newcastle University, to be involved in ground breaking science is very exciting, but also to be able to say to our families that we work alongside Doug Turnbull is fantastic for us as a charity and gives us huge credibility.

“Doug has given up his time to support The Lily Foundation in other ways too. He has attended and spoken at our Annual Charity Ball, and spent time talking with supporters and families. He has involved us in his patient information days in Newcastle, in public awareness engagement events and encouraged our participation in the public consultation for the new IVF Treatment ‘Mitochondrial Donation’ that could help many of the families we support have a healthy child.

“It is an extremely exciting time for anyone connected with mitochondrial disease and this is down to Doug and his team and the work that they have pioneered in Newcastle with the support of The Wellcome Trust.

“We at the Lily Foundation believe he goes above and beyond what would be expected from someone in his position. It is incredibly clear to us that his passion and dedication for his work comes from the heart and that his primary focus is his patients. This is a very special trait in a doctor and is what makes him stand out above the rest.”

To learn more about the research we do in this area at NIHR Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre, please visit our mitochondria and neuromuscular researchinformation pages.