New Love interest in clinical research

Graham Love has just moved from Science Foundation Ireland to Molecular Medicine Ireland. He talks to Claire O'Connell about switching his sights to clinical studies.


“Why did you leave Science Foundation Ireland?” It’s a pretty blunt question to be firing off at the start of an interview, but Dr Graham Love smiles and takes it in his stride. It’s not the first time he has been asked about the motives for his departure in January from SFI, a major funder of scientific and engineering research in Ireland, to take up the role of chief executive at Molecular Medicine Ireland, a smaller organisation that seeks to enable clinical studies and trials.

Leaving the old job
So, why did he go? “I am very candid about this, I wanted to move up,” says Love. “And in some ways it was hard to leave SFI, but I am a person who generally moves on after a few years, I like to keep on my toes.”

A track back through Love’s career bears this out. After his PhD in pharmacology at University College Dublin he went to Accenture, where he worked in management consulting for several years before moving to the post of chief executive at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland. Next stop was SFI, where he became head of policy and communication – and when the top job of director general came up, he applied for it. “I put myself forward for the DG position, but the right person got the job,” says Love, referring to current DG Prof Mark Ferguson. “After that point on I wanted a number one position, even if it was in a smaller organisation, and that was genuinely my motivation to move to MMI when the opportunity arose.”

His exit comes at a time of change for SFI, which has recently put an increased emphasis on funding research with societal and economic impact.

During his time there, Love describes how he strove to keep the agency “current, relevant and above all alive” at a time of cutbacks. “The decision to invest in science by successive governments is only 12 to 15 years old,” he says. “It is possible that in the depths of a very severe crisis that the investment could be nullified and taken away – that would be a very stupid thing to do, but it’s possible and would be understandable. Therefore we had to articulate very clearly the case again and again, and to align it with the economic agenda, which is very important at the moment.”

New job: building scale
Now Love’s role at MMI, which he took up in late February, will be about making clinical and translational research happen more readily in Ireland. “This is about the pull-through of health research that transfers to patients in the form of diagnosis, therapeutics and care,” he says.

The organisation receives funding through the Health Research Board, Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI), Enterprise Ireland, the EU and the Irish Cancer Society, as well as core funding from its five academic partners: University College Dublin, NUI Galway, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin.

The idea is to link the partners to build scale, explains Love. “If you pull the partner institutions and their associated hospitals together properly, then you get something that can compete internationally in terms of expertise, patient participation and sophistication of regulatory and ethical compliance,” he says.

Ambition for multi-site clinical studies
One focus for MMI is training clinician scientists, and it supports a structured training programme across the medical schools. Another objective is to build up the infrastructure for clinical studies in Ireland. “We have our sights set laser-like on making multi-site clinical studies happen in Ireland – multi-site being the key term there,” says Love. “ICORG [the All-Ireland Cooperative Oncology Research Group] are doing it very well in cancer, but that has got to be built up and made robust for many areas.”

MMI set up the Irish Clinical Research Infrastructure Network (ICRIN) to examine how clinical studies could be facilitated here, particularly now that changes are coming at a European level that mean Ireland could be a hub for international studies, explains Love.

“If I am a mobile funding agency or a company wanting to do trials and studies, I will want to go where it is efficient to set up,” he says. “So I think we need something in Ireland that is akin to a shared services centre, a one-stop-shop where you can come in, get your protocols and ethical approval, have the operations to support that.”

Tapping into Europe
Once Ireland has streamlined the process of enabling clinical studies here, Love sees opportunities in Europe for funding and networking, particularly through the European Clinical Research Infrastructure Network (ECRIN). “Europe is as yet way under-tapped in this area for Ireland,” he says. “But we will only succeed in those programmes with a lean and efficient structure.”

He also sees the benefit of linking with industry for clinical studies, but not by taking on the big names. “It’s not MMI’s or the universities’ job to go into competition with the likes of Icon or Quintiles,” he says. “But there’s a role for where industry wants creative links with the academic investigators for early activities – they want the brains and the agility and they will pay for them and give us access to that whole world, but we have to make those collaborations easy.”

More generally, Love reckons it will be straightforward enough to know in time whether MMI is hitting the target in such ambitions. “There’s a fairly simple metric of success, and in five years it is either going to be there or not,” he says. “If there’s a decent number of reasonably sophisticated multi-site studies and trials, that is a mark of success. And if they are not there ,it’s a failure.”