November 2018

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Once upon a time in Ireland, there lived a little family of five. Dad, a chemical engineer, Mum, an art teacher and the three children looked much like everyone else around, but something was different. Their food, for example, was uncommonly spicy and they regularly hosted unusually lively gatherings with strange, exotic music, often featuring metal drums. Some neighbours even claimed that the music made references to cannibalism, obeahmen and loose women with names like Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina. They blamed the mother. She was from Trinidad and apparently couldn’t help it. On the plus side, she was wonderful with people and passionate about her children’s education. To everyone’s delight, despite their mother’s peculiar habits and their very unusual upbringing, the children turned out quite well.

One of those children, Professor Dermot Kelleher, stands before us today, an extraordinary scientist and clinician, renowned for his pioneering research, transformative medical leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal College of Physicians (London), Trinity College Dublin, and the American Gastroenterology Association and was the 2011 recipient of the prestigious Conway Medal from the Royal Academy of Medicine (Ireland). Dr. Kelleher gained First Class Honours in Medicine at Trinity College Dublin in 1978 – a rare feat at the time. Inspired by his mentor Professor Donald Weir, he specialised in gastroenterology, training first in Dublin and then as a 1986 Fogarty Scholar at the University of California. In 1989, he returned to Trinity College as a Wellcome Senior Fellow in Clinical Science earning his MD in 1994. Seven years later, he was appointed to the Trinity College Chair in Clinical Medicine.

Dr. Kelleher’s research (which has generated over 300 publications to date) has focussed on the mechanisms underlying inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Innovation, entrepreneurship and the ability to move basic research findings from the laboratory bench to the bedside have been hallmarks of his career. For example, his identification of mechanisms by which Helicobacter pylori (a major cause of ulcers) protects itself from the immune system led to an effective vaccine licensed to the Chiron Corporation.

He has patented inventions in the areas of diagnostics, drugs and nano-fluidics through spin-out companies. These include Opsona Therapeutics (for which he was co-founder) which develops drugs and vaccines, Deerac Fluidics (now merged with Labcyte) and Cellix, both global leaders in micro and nanolitre liquid handling systems for the Life Sciences industry.

Dr. Kelleher has repeatedly demonstrated that the key to accelerating this so-called “translational research” is working in multidisciplinary settings and he was central to the creation of a number of institutes and networks that bring together engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists and academic clinicians. These include the Institute for Molecular Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, the Wellcome Trust HRB Clinical Research Facility at Trinity College Dublin and St James’ Hospital, and the new Medical School Building as part of the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute. He was also one of the co-founders of the Dublin Molecular Medicine Centre which led to the creation of Molecular Medicine Ireland, a consortium of Irish Universities and their associated academic hospitals.

Like his mentor, Dr. Kelleher combines excellent medical research and practice with great leadership. Currently Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President, Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, his previous roles include serving as Head of the School of Medicine and Vice-Provost for Medical Affairs at Trinity College, Dublin, Director at Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Dublin, and more recently, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London and Dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore.

Being a successful Dean is a noteworthy achievement but Dr. Kelleher is clearly a bit of an overachiever: he was Dean of Imperial College and the Lee Kong Chian simultaneously (on two continents)! Furthermore, during this tenure he oversaw the renewal of Imperial’s designation as one of only five Academic Health Sciences Centres in the UK and led the teams that secured Imperial College’s highest ever ranking in the Research Excellence Framework.

Dr. Kelleher is also a member of the London Health Commission and has founding membership of MedCity, a collaboration between the Mayor of London, Imperial College, King's College and University College London aimed at promoting life sciences investment, entrepreneurship and industry. He has served as President of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine and is a Non-Executive Director of ICON plc, one of the leading global clinical research organisations.

On top of all this, Dr. Kelleher fancies himself as a premier footballer, having represented Ireland in the 2015 and 2016 World Medical Football Federation Championship. He has not yet scored a winning goal but I have no doubt he will get there. After all, his motto is “never take no for an answer”. By this, he doesn’t persist by banging his head against walls; instead he finds creative ways around them. So when his Irish Medical Federation football team no longer wanted him, he just joined the Masters team. Dr. Kelleher recognises that having a great team is key to success and in addition to his many collaborators, he credits his wife Jean, his children, the Fajgendaums and the rest of his Trini family for their unwavering support… and last, but not least, all the spicy food, tropical music, patience, kindness and love from his inspirational Trini mother.

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