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Researcher Spotlight : Dr Helen Lee

6 Oct, 2014

helen leeDr Helen Lee is  the Director of Research at the Diagnostics Development Unit at Cambridge University, where she leads the development of diagnostics for diseases such as HIV and chlamydia. She is also President and CEO of spin-out company Diagnostics for the Real World , which  takes these diagnostics  to market. This week she tells us about her work, what motivates her and how she got to where she is today.

What are you working on?

My group develops technologies and translates them into diagnostic assays for the detection of infectious diseases specifically for resource-poor settings. Due to the limitation of infrastructure and lack of highly-trained personnel, the tests need to be simple, robust and yet with high-performance. Our goal has always been to DELIVER these assays to rural areas where they can be used to give rapid results while the patients are still on site. I have always said that if all we do is to develop a prototype assay or publish papers, then we would have failed.

What does your average day involve?

I interact a great deal with the development team with different yet complementary skills that are necessary for the development of diagnostic platforms. The team is made up of a kaleidoscope of molecular biologists, clinical trial, regulatory and quality control specialists, hardware and software engineers, plastic component designers, mechanical engineers, project or product managers and production assemblers.

Why is your work important?

 I would not necessarily describe our work as important, but I do think it is very useful — particularly to those living in rural areas of developing countries who do not have access to timely diagnostic tests and therefore appropriate treatment. By providing simple and yet effective diagnostics that do not require highly-trained personnel or cold chain transport/storage, we aim to make a difference.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

 For anyone who has visited rural clinics in sub-Saharan Africa, s/he cannot help but be struck by the image of women with one child on her back and others tethered to her hand, waiting on the lawn because there is no waiting room. Some of them must have slept over night there since they are waiting in the early morning. I do not know how they get there since I do not readily see public transport. I hope our rapid test which can lead to a clinical action during one such visit will make their life a little easier and better.

helen lee lab

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

 I used to work in industry, at one of the fortune 500 diagnostic companies. A group of us wanted to do something about the diagnostic needs in developing countries where the prevalence are highest and resources the poorest. For obvious and in fact legitimate reasons, the company’s responsibility was to the shareholders. Consequently, we decided to put our money where our mouth was and left industry to academia, where profit is not the motive and where we could find an environment to develop technologies specifically for resource-poor settings.


How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

 What we do has little or no commercial value, even though it can be extremely useful. If it had not been for the funding from the Wellcome Trust throughout the years, we would not be where we are today.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

 People often ask me what makes innovation? And my answer has always been that innovation is not just about intelligence – most people are pretty intelligent. Rather, it is about being able to deal with failures, day in and day out. In fact, if something is that easy to do, someone would have done it already. So for me, innovation is rooted in perseverance. More than anything else, it is about finding a way to do what needs to be done and never give up.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

 I do not dread any question about my work. I do dread that I am not efficient at my work, and I often am not, alas.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

 I am an avid football fan and for a Chinese woman working in academia, this often surprises people. In fact, I only came in to finish this interview today after the Arsenal and Chelsea game. Although my husband is French and we tend to support Arsenal, Chelsea deserved to win today and Wenger made a mistake in not taking Cesc Fabregas back…

What keeps you awake at night?

 Failure to deliver the tests to where it is needed – and after all this effort over the years. I worry the most about failing those who have worked so hard and so long alongside with me and who have believed in what we are trying to do.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

 Something my mother told me many years ago: If you really want to do something, and if what you really want to do is truly worthwhile, the world will step aside and let you go through.

helen lee lab 2

And finally, the “chain-reaction” question set by our previous spotlit researcher Professor Helen McShane: Do you love what you do?

Absolutely!  In the past 20 years, I do not ever remember dreading on a Sunday evening that I have to go to work the next day. I often think how lucky I am — not rich but earning a good enough living, doing something that is intellectually challenging but also useful, and having the freedom to work on what I believe in.  Working has been a privilege to me.

If you want to explore Dr Helen Lee’s work further then take a look at this  short film about Helen’s work, or read some of  her recent published work : Performance of a New Rapid Test for the Detection of Hepatitis B Surface Antigen in Various Patient Populations, SAMBA HIV Semiquantitative Test, a New Point-of-Care Viral-Load-Monitoring Assay for Resource-Limited Settings



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