Anne White is Professor of Endocrine Sciences at the University of Manchester and is our Jubilee Medal winner this year. Her research focuses on POMC peptides and energy balance and she will be presenting her medal lecture at SfE BES Online 2020, on Thursday 19 November. Read this interview ahead of her lecture to find out more about her research and her career in endocrinology.
Tell us about your current research
My research focuses on the processing of the precursor for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), propiomelanocortin (POMC), and the neuropeptide, alpha-Melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha MSH). For many years, my research has been involved with the diagnosis of ACTH related disorders, in parallel with understanding the role of POMC and alpha MSH in regulation of food intake and energy balance.
Tell us about your career path and what you are most proud of
In my first postdoc position, I developed monoclonal antibodies for the diagnosis of peptide and steroid hormones. This led to an interesting discovery that non-pituitary tumours causing ectopic ACTH syndrome secreted much higher concentrations of ACTH precursors, than ACTH. Having monoclonal antibodies and immunometric assays enabled easier diagnosis of these tumours. It was very difficult for a non-clinical scientist working in a clinical department to carve out a career – this was probably compounded by being a woman with young children! However, perseverance is my middle name and my interest in prohormone processing has underpinned my research in neuropeptide networks in the hypothalamus.
My early studies on the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis) and Cushing’s syndrome also led to research on abnormalities in the glucocorticoid receptor with David Ray, and subsequently on how chronic glucocorticoid treatment can lead to metabolic syndrome. My career has evolved despite not moving from Manchester for family reasons and I did a Royal Society Industry fellowship as my sabbatical close to home.
I am proud of the fact that I have had a rewarding career combined with a wonderful family life. I am also proud of the people who have worked for me over the years and who have established careers in their own right. I’m also proud of the work we’ve done to help patients and endocrinologists in the UK and abroad.
What inspired you to choose endocrinology as a career?
I didn’t choose endocrinology as a career, it sort of chose me! Having signed up as a post-doc, I became fascinated with the research questions and just couldn’t stop. It is much harder for a non-clinical scientist to gain the background in endocrinology that is needed to make it a career, but I had some very good mentors and the Society conferences were always a fount of information.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Solving research problems gives me a great sense of satisfaction. It’s a challenge and a lot of the time things go wrong, but then when you see a result which you recognise is important and you can present it successfully to your peers, it makes all the hard work worthwhile.
I have also enjoyed working with such intelligent scientists, both those in my group and the numerous collaborators. There is also something worthwhile about doing research that I know will make a difference.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research?
Our labs were closed for a few months but we used the opportunity to write papers and grant applications. My research team has been so resilient and they were determined to get back in the labs as soon as they could.
Please tell us a little more about what you will be presenting during your lecture at SfE BES Online 2020?
I set myself the challenge of explaining what we know about different processing pathways for POMC at the cellular level, but I also wanted to highlight the questions still to be answered. In the pituitary, POMC is processed to ACTH, but in ectopic tumours this processing is disrupted. This results in higher concentrations of POMC than ACTH in the blood, which can be used for differential diagnosis in Cushing’s syndrome. In the hypothalamus, POMC-derived peptides are important in regulating energy balance. However, there are many more steps in the cellular processing of POMC to give the melanocortin peptides. We have learnt a lot from mutations in genes involved in this pathway that result in early onset obesity in children and from mouse models. Despite this, there are complexities in these POMC networks which we don’t yet understand. Addressing these issues will be important in understanding imbalances which drive obesity and metabolic syndrome.
What do you think about the move to virtual meetings?
Moving to virtual conferences will drive a change in the way we communicate, which could be beneficial in the long-term for scientific research. It has made it so easy to listen to a talk from someone in another part of the world. However there is no doubt that, as researchers, we gain a lot from the casual conversations at a conference. The loss of this is a big disadvantage.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in your field?
We are living in very challenging times and it’s hard to predict the effect of COVID-19 on future research. It is probable that funding will be hit badly and therefore we will lose a lot of momentum. A separate challenge is trying to protect the experienced post docs and research fellows. Even without COVID-19, I would have said one of the biggest challenges is to safeguard the huge knowledge base and skill set of this group of people who have difficult career paths with a lack of secure contracts.
What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?
In most cases we see incremental increases in knowledge and when different findings are synthesised, we get a greater understanding. So I think major breakthroughs are only seen in retrospect. This requires endocrinologists with different skillsets building the knowledge base. The history of scientific research has taught us that discoveries often come from unlikely sources and we need to be open minded, both to support diverse research and to recognise the nature of the discovery.
Any words of advice for aspiring endocrinologists?
Identify someone you respect and ask them if they will mentor you. You need different mentors at different stages in your career, so be prepared to change mentor. I would also suggest that you find other researchers to collaborate with as they will bring a different perspective to your ideas and may have the same research interests/obsessions, so will carry on talking with you when others are bored! This could also lead to new friendships and new opportunities. My final piece of advice would be that you should be prepared to challenge your colleagues, although this should be in a gentle enquiring way to be most effective!
You can hear Professor Anne White’s Medal Lecture “POMC peptides: master regulators of the stress axis and neuroendocrine pathways in energy balance” on Thursday 19 November at 13:05 GMT. If you haven’t already, register for SfE BES Online now!