Laureation address: Professor Michael Ferguson CBE BSc PhD FRS FRSE FMedSci

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor Garry Taylor, Master of the United College and Deputy Principal

Friday 8 December 2017

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Professor Michael Ferguson.

A bite from a tsetse fly in sub-Saharan Africa can result in a parasite being transmitted into the blood of its victim: in humans this gives rise to sleeping sickness. The parasite is known as a trypanosome and the disease as human African trypanosomiasis. 70 million people in 37 countries are at risk of infection, and there is a desperate need for new drugs.

African trypanosomiasis is a so-called neglected tropical protozoan disease, alongside South American trypanosomiasis, or Chagas disease, which infects around seven million Latin Americans, and Leishmaniasis, responsible for 30,000 deaths annually.

The research of Mike Ferguson (as he is known to his friends) has shed light on the biochemistry of all three of these parasites. He was the first to determine the structure of a complex chemical entity that anchors proteins to the surface of these parasites. This glycosylphosphatidylinositol membrane anchor, thankfully known as the GPI anchor, plays an important role not only in parasites but throughout eukaryotic biology. In the case of the African trypanosome, the GPIs anchor a highly variable protein coat that the trypanosome uses to evade the human immune system. The parasite synthesises these essential GPI anchors using a series of complex enzyme reactions which Mike and his colleagues have characterised and used to develop novel inhibitors that have potential as drugs.

Translational research lies at the heart of Mike’s career: moving from a fundamental understanding of the biochemistry of a cell or pathogen to the development of drugs to cure a disease. Scientific revolutions in molecular biology, proteomics and robotics have provided the opportunity for universities to engage in the early stages of drug discovery, previously the sole domain of major pharmaceutical companies, and Mike, with his Dundee colleague Alan Fairlamb, grasped this opportunity to establish the Dundee Drug Discovery Unit, or DDU. Today the DDU is a model for University-based drug discovery: a multidiscipline collaboration of biologists, chemists and pharmacologists that has expanded its disease portfolio to cover cancer, tuberculosis, psoriasis, eczema and cystic fibrosis in addition to diseases of the developing world.

Not content with building the DDU, Mike put his considerable energy and vision into raising the funds to build the £26m Dundee Discovery Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research which opened in 2014. Such developments maintain Dundee’s place as the top ranked university for life science research in the UK, and led to it recently being named as the world’s most influential pharmaceuticals research institution.

Mike has received many accolades including Fellowships of the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 2008 he was made a CBE for services to science, and in 2013 was appointed as the first Regius Professor of Life Sciences at Dundee. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the Wellcome Trust, the Board of Governors of the Medicines for Malaria Venture and serves on the scientific advisory boards of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Crick Institute in London. 

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to fighting neglected diseases, establishing world-class interdisciplinary research facilities, and helping maintain our sister institution’s School of Life Sciences at number one, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Professor Mike Ferguson.

Professor Michael Ferguson's response

Chancellor, Principal Mapstone, distinguished academic colleagues and – most importantly – fellow graduates and their proud parents. I’d like to thank the University of St Andrews most sincerely for this great and hugely appreciated honour and Professor Garry Taylor for his very very kind words.

Speaking very briefly on behalf of the University of Dundee: as we’ve heard from Principal Mapstone, we’re enjoying our 50th anniversary this year, having been borne out of our 600-year-old parent, the University of St Andrews, in 1967, and we really appreciate the parental pat on the head that you have extended to us today.

My fellow graduates of today, what can I say? You’ve all studied really hard for three, four, possibly more years to truly earn the degrees that you’ve been awarded; and I, on the other hand, have not. So that feels pretty good, I have to say.

But seriously, this honour recognises the achievements not of an individual, or even a team, but of a team of teams, dozens of biologists, chemists, pharmacologists, all working together for a common goal. So I’m extremely proud to be here today, representing that team of teams, which includes my professional and life partner of 30 years, Dr Lucia Gϋther, who is in the audience today and to whom I owe everything.

To the students: I hope you will agree that studying a subject of one’s own choice has been a great privilege. In the arts and humanities, such studies help us understand the human condition, and there’s nothing more important than that. In the science and STEM subjects, our studies help us understand the world and the universe in which we exist, and they provide options for how we might technologically adapt our environment, be that discovering new therapeutics to keep us alive or finding ways to unwind previous mistakes, like CO2 induced climate change. 

So, fellow graduates, as you take your advanced knowledge into the world, enjoy the ride, use your knowledge and intelligence to do some good, and relish the great start this fantastic university has given you. Your motto is ‘Ever to Excel’ – and I’m sure you all will.

Above all, please accept my hearty congratulations to you all, and one thing that is absolutely beyond doubt is that your families and friends will be immensely proud of you today.

Thank you.