Gino Martini, a Fellow of the RPS, has been appointed the Society’s chief scientist. Here, he talks to Corrinne Burns about the scientific foundations of the pharmacy sector, and his ambitions as he embarks on his new role.
What is your professional background?
I started out as a community pharmacist. I then went into research by accident, really: I was asked to do a PhD in drug delivery at the University of Manchester. After that, I began a career in industry — I worked for Catalent, and then spent 16 years at GlaxoSmithKline as a senior director in drug delivery and product development. I was with Roche for two years, as innovations and outreach lead, and more recently I joined Shire.
Inbetween all that, I did a spell in academia as professor of pharmaceutical innovation at Kings College London between 2011–2016, and I still hold an honorary chair there.
I have been exposed to hospital pharmacy, too: a lot of my colleagues in academia were bona fide hospital pharmacists. So I have a varied background.
What attracted you to the role of chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society?
Pharmacists do valuable work in the NHS, in industry, in hospitals — being able to communicate that enthusiasm for what pharmacists can do is what drew me to the role.
I think pharmacists are unsung heroes. We are healthcare practitioners on the high street. What is important is that science underpins our practice. Science is not just about physical chemistry — it is about biology, pharmacy practice, compliance, and understanding people and the way that people interact with their medicines.
That is what we do as pharmacists — we are medicines experts and we interact with patients on a daily basis. That element makes us unique as a profession. We have a big impact in making sure people take their medicines appropriately and get the best care.
To be made chief scientific officer is a proud moment for me; I feel very privileged and honoured.
How will your role fit within the Society?
I work as part of a team, with deputy chief scientist Claire Thompson, and assistant chief scientist Colin Cable. We are going to establish an office of the chief scientist, so people can interact with us and be assured that there is a structure behind the role, which is supported by the three national pharmacy boards, the RPS Assembly and the RPS itself.
The chief scientist now reports to Paul Bennett, the RPS chief executive officer, which I think emphasises the importance of the role.
The RPS has set this structure up and it is an important commitment by the Society — it shows that Paul Bennett, Catherine Duggan, director of professional development and support, and the directors and boards of the three nations really understand that science underpins practice, and have, therefore, put the office of the chief scientist in place.
We will work closely with the new Science and Research and Faculty and Education Expert Advisory Boards (EABs), under Christine Bond and Peter Kopelman respectively, to ensure we get wider scrutiny of messaging. We are very much a team.
What do you think about the RPS’s previous approach to science, and where do you see it going in future?
My predecessor, Jayne Lawrence, did a great job. She did fantastic work in the areas of microbial resistance, and the
New Medicines, Better Medicines, Better Use of Medicines
guide provided a real foundation for the future.
I have a few key agendas. One focus of mine is diabetes: I think it is a major threat. My father died of diabetes two years ago — he really struggled to control it, and I see an epidemic occurring with this disease.
At the recent RPS conference, Sir Muir Gray gave a fascinating talk about diabetes. I agree with his theory that pharmacists are healthcare practitioners and they could spend a lot of time talking to patients about wellbeing and being active. He asked why pharmacists don’t sell weights and gym equipment, and I think he’s got a point. Why aren’t we spending even more time helping patients with taking blood pressure, doing diagnostic tests?
Smart ways to monitor blood glucose levels is something I am very keen on. I am an independent advisor for the small company Bioepic, who’ve devised a way of using smartphones to measure glucose levels in the blood without taking a blood sample. This kind of technology could make a big difference. Pharmacists, by interacting with patients using this technology, could play a pivotal role helping patients keep on top of blood sugar levels.
I also want to engage more with students and early-careers pharmacists, and re-ignite their passion for science. I think younger people feel a little bit disillusioned once they’ve completed their pre-reg. I want them to know that as pharmacists, they are healthcare professionals; they are clinical, medical, and physical scientists; and they are a valuable asset to the healthcare ecosystem in the UK.
However, novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are at the top of my agenda.
Novel psychoactive substances?
Legal highs: this is a topic that the Science and Research European Association for Biometrics, which I advise, is reviewing.
Many streets across the UK are littered with little metal cylinders — empty nitrous oxide (N2O) canisters. Recently I was leaving a store near where I live, and as I walked out into the car park I counted about 100 cylinders on the ground.
This is a car park that many local teenagers hang around in. It struck me someone could be intoxicated on N2O, crash their car and potentially kill someone. That can’t be right.
N2O is not safe. Research shows that when it’s taken in large volumes, nitrous oxide can damage vitamin B12 levels, which in turn can damage the tissue in the spinal cord and central nervous system. People can experience hypoxia and hallucinations, and even develop a permanent inability to walk. Yet the regulatory framework has fallen down recently. And the availability of these cylinders is far too easy.
I want to educate pharmacists about the dangers of NPS. Pharmacists are medicines experts and we are very accessible to the general public, who come to us for advice — but we need to be informed about legal highs and the dangers they pose.
Will Brexit impact pharmaceutical research?
I was a Remainer. Why wouldn’t I be? I have European parents, and I have PhD students from within the EU.
As a result of Brexit, there are some dangers around collaborating across borders. The Government has released a position paper on this, saying that the UK is open for business — the UK has some of the best universities in the world, and a rich heritage in life sciences.
When you look at funding levels, the amount we get from the EU is about 10%. But that is still significant, and still has to be bridged: we do have to worry about it, because anything that damages funding levels in what is already a competitive, highly constrained funding environment will obviously make things more difficult.
I don’t like that, and I think we need to find a way of working with the EU in a way that allows research to continue. Having an exchange of skilled individuals is very important. I welcome the fact that the Government has set out its position on wanting to engage with researchers within the EU. I also welcome the fact that Sir John Bell and his life sciences strategy wants to bring outside talent into the UK.
We need that exchange of individuals, of brainpower, and of viewpoints.
What is your plan for your first 12 months in office?
I will spend a lot of time talking to members, and going out to different sectors of practice. I would like to go and see prison pharmacy and spend more time with community and hospital pharmacists, and examine the scientific challenges they have.
I particularly want to spend time with hospital pharmacists. I am going to join the Hospital Expert Advisory Group in one of their sessions, to talk about what science aspects we can help with in their sector.
I also want to work very closely with the national pharmacy boards, to see what we can do for them.
But mainly, I want to get to know the membership. Once I understand what the members want from their chief scientist, then I can deliver it.
What else is high on your agenda as you begin your new role?
I would like to gather evidence about how many pharmacists enter the research profession. Are there enough pharmacists doing PhDs? I have a feeling that fewer pharmacists are entering research roles. I think that’s probably to do with the four-year degree, followed by a year of training — doing a four-year PhD on top of that takes a long time.
If the evidence shows that the numbers are very low, then I need to look at how we can bolster them: what kind of training options can we offer, what funding options can we look at, to encourage pharmacists to do PhDs?
I would also like to encourage more people to join the RPS, both domestically and internationally. I know two researchers in Malta — Claude Farrugia, and Professor Lilian Azzopardi — who are members of the RPS because they see the value of the Society. I think the journal is fabulous: the quality of the science and continuing professional development articles, and the infographics, are all excellent. The journal is something I will sit down and read. That alone is a valuable membership asset.