The road to beating heart disease and chronic kidney disease 

Camilla Simpson (MSc Analytical Chemistry, 1994) reflects on her transatlantic career as a leader in science, facilitated by her Birkbeck education.  

“Coming from a medical family, my motivation is making people’s lives better.” Camilla has strived towards this goal at Birkbeck and far beyond. Since studying at the College to advance her grasp of chemistry, Camilla has gone from working in critical care medicines, speciality and rare diseases to lead new bioscience company, Zehna Therapeutics, as CEO, which ‘spun out’ from the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Keen to engage with emerging areas of science, Camilla reflects: “I always enjoy the untrodden road.”  

Arriving at Birkbeck in 1993, “I felt that I hadn’t finished with academia,” Camilla recalls. “Studying at Birkbeck was exceptionally hard work, but it positioned me really well for my future. I got a distinction and left with real confidence in my ability.” She adds: “I learned a lot from students at Birkbeck who had already progressed in their careers.” This included public speaking, which made Camilla feel “terrified at the time” but, many years later, has made all the difference for her when presenting Zehna’s research to possible funders.  

“Coming from a medical family, my motivation is making people’s lives better.”

What interested me about the opportunity [with Zehna Therapeutics] was the link between a metabolite created by our microbiome (microorganisms in our bodies) and poor outcomes in disease,” Camilla reflects. “When the Cleveland Clinic was researching cardiovascular disease, they found that a microbial metabolite was present in many cases of these diseases. As such, we are now targeting the pathway that produces the metabolite so we can shut it down and therefore potentially prevent the progression of cardiovascular diseases and chronic kidney disease.”  

The science Zehna is working on has 10 years of foundational research behind it. The next steps are to bring this science into human clinical trials. Camilla explains: “For the realisation of the scientific research, we need to translate these findings to a clinical impact in humans. We believe we will be able to measure this human impact quickly.” 

Camilla’s advice to aspiring and early-career STEM professionals is to “start within a specific function or discipline, and then broaden your technical skills to include leadership skills. If you find that you have an interest in people, bringing people together and charting a path, that is leadership – and you should jump on that.” For Camilla, this is where women in STEM can play a unique role: “We are intuitive, solution-focused, and like to bring people together in comradeship. If you want change in an organisation, bring in an executive. If you want real change, bring in a female executive!”