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14.05.18

£4million immune system grant means 50 years of research for Sir Philip Cohen

Professor Sir Philip Cohen, one of the UK’s most respected scientists, has been awarded new research grants that will mean his work at the University of Dundee has been funded continuously for 50 years.

Sir Philip is a biochemist who has made major contributions to our understanding of protein phosphorylation and its role in cell regulation and human disease. Phosphorylation processes are very important because they control almost all aspects of cellular functions. Abnormal phosphorylation is a factor in many diseases, including cancer, high blood pressure and Parkinson’s.

Among his major findings was the discovery of how insulin works.

Over the past decade Sir Philip has switched the focus of his research to how the human immune system works at the molecular level.

He has now been given a Senior Investigator Award of £2.3million from the Wellcome Trust and a new Programme Grant of £1.6million from the Medical Research Council to support his research on the immune system for the next five years.

Both research programmes are aimed at understanding how to control the power of the body’s immune system to prevent autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, asthma, fibrosis and lupus, as well as enhance the power of the immune system to destroy cancers.

The research will build on new findings that have been made in the laboratories of Sir Philip and Professor Simon Arthur, also of the University of Dundee and a co-applicant on the grant from the Medical Research Council.

Sir Philip said, “Just over ten years ago I realised that the technology and know-how I had developed to work out how insulin controls the body’s metabolism would also enable me to understand how the immune system works at the molecular level.

“I therefore took the somewhat risky decision to abandon all my other research projects and focus on this entirely new, but very exciting, project about which I had little knowledge at the time. It has been a huge learning experience for me, and indeed I am continuing to learn something new about immunity every day, but all the effort has paid off with a number of novel and exciting findings that we will be building on with these new awards.

“I believe that there is a good chance that our research, together with our research collaborations with other academic laboratories and the pharmaceutical industry will lead to the development of improved drugs to treat diseases immune diseases and cancers.”

Sir Philip joined the University of Dundee in late 1971 and the first research grant he wrote was turned down the following year by what was then called the Science Research Council (now the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council).

He said, “My first successful grant application was funded in 1973 by the British Diabetic Association, which is now called Diabetes UK. This means that in 2023, when these new grants will enter their final year, I will have received continuous funding for my research for 50 years.

“I am therefore most grateful to all the funding agencies that have provided these grants over the years, most notably the Medical Research Council but also the Wellcome Trust and medical charities who supported my research when it was just getting underway and have continued to do so.

“Finally, I hope that these new awards will stop people asking me how I am enjoying my retirement! Although I stepped down from managing the School of Life Sciences at Dundee some years ago, my research lab continues to be as active as it ever was and, with these new awards, I am afraid that the University of Dundee will have to put up with me until I am nearly 78!”

Sir Philip has received an extensive list of awards and honours from around the world, ranging from the Colworth Medal (1977), membership of EMBO (1982), Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society (1984), Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list (1998), Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Science (2008), the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (2008), the MRC Millennium Medal (2013) and the Albert Einstein World Award of Science (2014).

He has published over 500 research papers and according to Thomson Scientific, Philadelphia, he was the world’s second most cited scientist in the field of biology and biochemistry from 1992-2003, and the world’s most cited biochemist from 1999-2009.