Chair of UAR Council, Jeremy Pearson, awarded MBE

10 February 2020

Posted by: Mia Rozenbaum

Category: Communications & media

Chair of UAR Council, Jeremy Pearson, awarded an MBE  

Professor Jeremy Pearson, the British Heart Foundation’s longest serving Associate Medical Director, and chair of UAR’s Council was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list for services to medical research. Mia Rozenbaum talked to Jeremy about this tribute to his remarkable career. 

If the start of Professor Jeremy Pearson’s career in science was sprinkled with a bit of luck, it soon evolved into an outstanding example of dedication and brilliance.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. After getting a degree in natural sciences from Cambridge, specialising in Biochemistry, I applied to various PhDs in all sorts of subjects. And the one I landed shaped the rest of my career.” 

Jeremy started working on atherosclerosis and how it develops using experimental animal models.

“And that was my first introduction to research and animal experiments. Ever since I’ve worked in that field with a particular interest in understanding how endothelial cells that line blood vessels contribute to health and disease.” 

After a brief fellowship in Oxford, Jeremy decided to work with cells in culture, to understand how they work in isolation. He was among the first in the UK to grow endothelial cells in culture from rabbits and piglets.

“In the beginning, endothelial cells were thought to only matter for the lining of the vessel wall, to keep the blood in and flowing. Gradually, we started realising how important they really were, and to understand their role in controlling blood pressure, clotting, blood cell activation, and the presence of fat in the vessels. Again, I was lucky, because I got into that field of research and there were very few doing what I was doing.” 

These discoveries moulded Jeremy’s career and increased his international recognition in the field. In the 1980s, a Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of nitric oxide, the gas made by endothelial cells that causes dilation of blood vessels and controls blood pressure.

“My contribution was adding to that discovery. Because we had endothelial cells in culture, we could actually show how nitric oxide production was controlled in endothelial cells in quite a lot of detail.” 

Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, Jeremy’s research evolved with his collaboration with Carol Black, a rheumatologist interested in understanding how some unpleasant immune vascular diseases such as vasculitis and systemic sclerosis worked. She was quite convinced that endothelial cells were important in controlling these diseases.  

Over the years Jeremy spent most of his career using cells derived from vascular tissues of animals – rabbits and pigs – and later from human umbilical tissue and doing almost no experiments in living animals.

“I never held a project licence, but I was constantly working alongside people who did.” 

He worked, for example, with several colleagues looking at the blood – brain barrier in living animal models, observing how blood vessel diameter changes in response to particular stimuli.

“There’s no way of doing that kind of research without using a living animal with an intact brain vasculature. Cell cultures can further complement the animal studies by looking at the mechanisms in more detail.  But in some cases, animals are absolutely essential to the research. However, if there are alternatives to using living animals in research, then one should use them.” 

In alignment with UAR, Jeremy’s philosophy is very clear: animal research is justified if there is no other way to understand the problem at stake, and under very strict and specific ethical, hygiene and wellbeing regulations.

 “You can see from my background that I am also keen on using alternatives. And that’s what I’ve done for most of my own career.” 

“Being on the Council of UAR opened my eyes to the different aspects of animal research that, as a researcher, I wasn’t necessarily in contact with. I gained a better understanding of how the vets and the staff that look after the animals regard animal research and how important it is to them, how much care and effort they put into the animals and how important the welfare of the animals in their care is. 

I also got a rounder perspective of how animal research is conducted in the UK. I became much more attuned to the whole spectrum of how animal research is carried out, its limitations, its importance and the standards that are used in the UK. I’ve learnt a lot by being chair of the Council, it’s made my knowledge of how the whole system works much more complete.” 

And over the years, his perspective wasn’t the only one that changed. 

“When I first started with UAR, there was so much hostility towards animal research, but that has now changed. The combined work of the Council and the UAR staff has managed to turn around public perception and convince – at least some – how important animal research is.” 

This has meant small changes that have had big effects. Promoting openness and transparency in research has meant that more and more research press releases mention animals when relevant, available information on animal research is ever growing and

“that has changed public awareness from what was a really toxic atmosphere among a minority of people into a much more open and less violent discussion about why animals are used in research.”  

Jeremy gives special thanks to Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of UAR, who has really been at the heart of all the major impacts that UAR has had.

“Wendy has been a fantastic CEO for UAR. She has made the job of the Council much easier and we really haven’t had to steer UAR particularly because what she does is exactly what the Council would like to see happening.” 

Jeremy was honoured but surprised to receive his MBE. 

“I have had plenty of professional recognition from my colleagues for my science, so I wouldn’t expect any award for that.” 

As well as his work at the BHF, Jeremy is also Chair to a number of organisations, and his role in leading a merger between two small charities played a major part in being awarded an MBE.

“I drove the merger of the Raynaud’s & Scleroderma Association and the Scleroderma Society, two small charities with very similar aims, to form Scleroderma & Raynaud’s UK (SRUK). Merging charities isn’t easy! In creating the new organisation we had to work very closely and very slowly and very precisely to get both sides to agree that one charity raising money for this fairly rare disease would be more successful than two separate charities.  I’m now the Chair of SRUK and I think this process was probably the ‘above and beyond’ element in my career that led to me being nominated for the MBE.”  

Wendy Jarrett welcomed the news of Jeremy’s award:

 “The whole UAR team and Council are absolutely delighted about Jeremy’s MBE. It is richly deserved, not just for his distinguished scientific career, but for the time and expertise he has given to small organisations like us and the other small charities with which he has taken on voluntary roles. We are very grateful to Jeremy for his leadership and are looking forward to raising a glass in celebration at our AGM later this year.”