Our local hero, Andrea Malaspina

My vote of thanks to Professor Andrea Malaspina after his UCL inaugural lecture, which he delivered on the 27th of April 2021.

On behalf of UCL and all the online attendees, I extend a hearty vote of thanks to Andrea Malaspina for enlightening us about Pavia, his journey from Italy to UCL and his insights into MND.

Andrea, one of my favourite books as a teenager was John Le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold‘’ about a British Cold War spy who takes on a dangerous assignment before retiring. Andrea, to me he is an example of an academic who has come in from the cold. Not only has he managed to adapt to the cultural complexities of moving from Italy to London and working as an NHS consultant, but he has now risen to a new pinnacle in his career. I admire him for his resilience and perseverance. Well done.

I met Andrea when I took up the chair of neurology at Barts and The London in 2006. At that time Andrea was a full-time NHS consultant working between the Basildon Hospital in Essex and the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. His specialist interests were MND and peripheral nerve disease.

From the week I arrived at the Royal London, Andrea stood out as being exceptional. Although Andrea is quiet and contemplative he is an example of a clinician who has the ability in grand rounds to cut to the chase by highlighting the key fact in a difficult case or asking the one question on which the clinical diagnosis or management pivots. Andrea is an incredibly sharp and skilled clinician and I have little doubt his clinical skills will not go unnoticed at the National Hospital. Queen Square are very lucky to acquire such an astute clinician.

Despite having a full-on and very busy district general hospital neurology commitment Andrea was determined to carve out an academic career for himself. For those of you who are academics, you will appreciate that the road from academia to NHS consultant is a very wide and well-travelled one; a safe haven for those who find the pressures of academia unsuitable for their constitutions. However, the road from a full-time NHS consultant to a full-time academic and to then Professor of Neurology at arguably one of if not the most prestigious academic neuroscience centres in the world is a very tortuous path that few dare to take. But not Andrea. So how did Andrea get here?

Before I took over as the centre lead in the Blizard Institute my predecessor John Priestley managed to give Andrea a part-time academic position within the medical school; if I recall correctly, Andrea only had one or two programmed activities or PAs a week for research. When you look at Andrea’s achievements a lot of those were made doing part-time research, i.e. on half a day per week whilst doing a very busy NHS job. During this time Andrea transformed MND services in Essex and East London setting up a research network and starting a biobank. Setting up research infrastructure is often a thankless task until you start reaping the benefits of all the hard work. Andrea is now one of the leading MND biomarker researchers in the world and is clearly reaping the benefits of his own hard work.

It was only when Andrea was being head-hunted simultaneously by a medical school in Switzerland and a medical school in the South of England did I manage to put together an urgent business case to create a full-time academic position for Andrea in the Blizard Institute on the Whitechapel campus of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. With more time for research, Andrea was able to put together a very exciting and ambitious body of research and to start an interventional MND clinical trials unit at the Royal London.

Andrea is incredibly resilient and despite many setbacks, he manages to get things done. Andrea also uses his clinical observations to inform his research; for example, Andrea taught me about rapid and slow-progressing MND.

Andreas is a systems biologist. Not only does he think clinically but has a very deep understanding of basic biology. Not many clinical academics understand basic biology. Andrea’s collaboration and work with Denise Sheer and Johan Aarum on RNA-protein aggregates and his own work on neurofilament aggregates are asking fundamental biological questions. Clearly, more work needs to be done in both areas and I suspect some of his future work will explain fundamental aspects of neurodegenerative diseases.

Andrea is also a technophile and one of the first researchers in our centre to adopt new technologies, be it aptamers, the mesoscale discovery or SIMOA biomarker platforms.

However, Andrea’s most enduring and powerful trait is his ability to rise above the political fray and to connect people and groups with the aim of doing things that no individual or group could do on their own. I am sure in 20 years time Andrea will be acknowledged as the quiet one, the one who came in from the cold, to build an international MND translational research network that will lead to new insights, new ways of diagnosing and monitor MND and most importantly new treatments and improved outcomes for people living with MND.

As someone who has watched Andrea grow from being an NHS consultant to Professor of Neurology and now MND Clinical Academic Lead at UCL, I feel very proud and honoured to be part of his extraordinary journey.

Clearly, Andrea has many miles to go and I wish him every success in the future.

I only wish we could all raise a real glass of champagne to congratulate Andrea on his new position and to thank him for such an engaging lecture.

Cheers and good luck.