Can you help support early career researchers like Catriona?
The impact early career researchers can make thanks to the funding the Academy of Medical Sciences receives for our unique grants and career development programmes. An Academy Starter Grant has enabled Professor Catriona Waitt’s research to protect babies around the globe.
After completing her PhD, Catriona was considering whether to return to clinical practice or pursue her research passion – understanding safe use of medicines in breastfeeding mothers.
‘In high income countries, women living with HIV were advised not to breastfeed. Yet, in low- and middle-income countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said they must exclusively breastfeed for six months. The guidelines were diametrically opposed,’ says Catriona, ‘I couldn’t understand why, and I discovered there was very little data regarding the impact of medicines on breastfed children. As a mother myself it made me angry. But I realised as a pharmacologist I could make a difference.’
Funding from an Academy Starter Grant enabled Catriona to develop a dried breast milk spot assay to measure drugs in breast milk, undertake a cultural feasibility and acceptability study in Uganda, and produce the world’s first well-characterised data on what happens to the drug in the body for several anti-retroviral drugs. With this data she successfully applied for a career development fellowship to continue her research.
Since her grant, Uganda-based Catriona has built a programme that looks at medications in pregnant and breastfeeding women and produces data to inform women on the amount a drug passes through breastmilk and its likely impact on perinatal safety. This means patients can make evidence-based choices without compromising the health of their baby.
Catriona’s work is of global relevance and influence. It has been cited in WHO policy and was highly relevant following changes to European and US breastfeeding guidelines. She has been invited to speak in a diverse range of countries, has growing global collaborations and joined technical working groups at WHO, as well as informing the FDA and MHRA.
In addition, Catriona led the establishment of the Uganda Chapter of Pharmacometrics Africa in 2021 to study drugs in complex and understudied populations and train the next generation of researchers. Her current Wellcome fellowship contains a south-north partnership between Uganda and Liverpool, a model she hopes to see grow.
‘Normally it is the expert from the global north that goes to low-and-middle-income countries to advise, but here we’re seeing the opposite,’ says Catriona. ‘Most women have at least one pregnancy, and more than half of all women globally require some kind of medication during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is not a “special population”, and the impact of my work isn’t limited to one disease, one drug or one society.’
‘The Academy Starter Grant was the most pivotal grant in my career,’ says Catriona. ‘It opened doors to change direction after my PhD. I would not be doing what I am doing if I had not received that grant.
‘If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be running a research programme with multi-million-pound funding and wide collaborative partnerships, I would not have believed you. I want to thank the Academy, its donors, and supporters because it has made such a difference. My career is a dream come true for me, and I’m so grateful to be able to do this work with my team that has a huge impact on the lives of others.’
It costs £38,000 to award a Starter Grant and provide vital research funding alongside the Academy’s unique career development programme. Please make a donation online and give what you can to support the next generation of outstanding researchers like Catriona.
Alternatively, click here to make a regular donation of £25 a month (£300 a year) or more and join the Helix Group to give over the longer term. Your donation would provide the Academy with sustainable funding to invest in programmes that are vital to the advancement of health and biomedical science.
Together, we will support the next generation of scientists to make advancements in medical knowledge and find new ways to diagnose and treat disease to save lives.