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Tributes to the brilliant University of Cambridge scientist Prof Chris Abell, who changed the face of drug discovery




Warm tributes have been paid to renowned scientist and successful entrepreneur Professor Chris Abell, who has died suddenly at the age of 62.

He was the pro vice chancellor for research and a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Cambridge and Todd-Hamied fellow of Christ’s College.

Professor Chris Abell has died at the age of 62. Picture: The Royal Society
Professor Chris Abell has died at the age of 62. Picture: The Royal Society

A pioneer in the field of fragment-based drug discovery, he was one of the founders of Cambridge-based biotechnology company Astex, which has helped to create cancer drugs.

Prof Abell was also a founding director of Cambridge Enterprise - the university’s commercialisation arm - and was the university’s first director of postdoctoral affairs.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope said: “Chris’ death is a huge loss to the university, and to me personally. Our thoughts and our deepest sympathies are with his wife, Dr Katherine Abell, their son Daniel, and with Chris’ friends and colleagues at the Department of Chemistry, at the research operations and research strategy offices, and at Christ’s College.”

Professor Jane Stapleton, master of Christ’s College, said: “In Christ’s we are devastated by the shocking news of the death of Chris Abell, our warm, wise friend. He has long been held in the greatest esteem by the college to which he devoted so much of his remarkable energy.”

Using a highly interdisciplinary approach at the Department of Chemistry, Prof Abell sought to understand the mechanisms of key enzymes and develop approaches to their inhibition.

This is valuable in developing new treatments for diseases such as tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis and cancer.

It was in 1999 that he co-founded Astex , which is world-leading in its use of fragment-based drug discovery. The approach - which involves screening compounds much smaller than usual - has since been adopted across the pharmaceutical industry and in many academic laboratories.

Dr Harren Jhoti, CEO of Astex , told the Cambridge Independent: “Chris was a rare academic. Not only was he a world-class scientist focused on interdisciplinary research, he was also an entrepreneur having co-founded Astex in 1999, as well as other biotechs.

“He remained very much involved in Astex as a key scientific advisory board member and a regular visitor since the start.

“He will be dearly missed by many current and former Astex staff members. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

At Astex' 20th anniversary party at Longstowe Hall in 2019 are, from left, co-founders Dr Roberto Solari, Sir Tom Blundell, Dr Harren Jhoti and Prof Chris Abell. Picture: Keith Heppell
At Astex' 20th anniversary party at Longstowe Hall in 2019 are, from left, co-founders Dr Roberto Solari, Sir Tom Blundell, Dr Harren Jhoti and Prof Chris Abell. Picture: Keith Heppell

Prof Abell made major contributions to the development of microfluidic microdroplets as a platform for experimental science - technology that has applications in cell biology, chemistry and materials science. The work resulted in him co-founding Sphere Fluidics in 2010 and Aqdot in 2013.

An undergraduate and postgraduate student of St John’s College, Cambridge, he went on toconduct postdoctoral research at Brown University in the US before joining Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry in 1984.

He was named a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2012 and a fellow of the Royal Society in 2016, when he was described as having “changed the face of drug discovery”.

Dr James Keeler, head of the Department of Chemistry, said: “Chris has for many years been a leading figure in the field of biological chemistry and has been responsible for significant advances in the field.

“He has also been conspicuously successful in commercialising aspects of his work, most notably as co-founder of Astex. Chris is remembered by us all as an outstanding scientist, a valued and loyal colleague, and a tireless champion for the department and the university.”

Following his death on Monday October 26, a digital condolences book has been set up at remembr.com/professor.chris.abell .

Among the tributes paid there, Alessio Ciulli wrote: “Science has lost a biological chemist of the finest, brightest mind and a brilliant teacher. I learnt so much from him since joining his group, almost 20 years ago. Cambridge has lost a unique leader and rare citizen, who devoted selflessly to the greater communal good. I learnt from him how to collaborate (he was a great collaborator to many of us!), how to work with others, and how to influence others.”


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