Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Sadie Whittaker, Answers Your QuestionsJune 5, 2018

Sadie Whittaker, PhD is the new Chief Scientific Officer of Solve ME/CFS Initiative.

She received her PhD in molecular biology at University of Birmingham, UK, and her BSc in Biochemistry from University of Leeds, UK.  Sadie has many of experience in the biotech industry, in clinical development for biologic medicines, and in strategic leadership roles for advocacy, policy, communication, and external engagement.  Sadie brings to the organization a deep understanding of the scientific discovery, drug development, and drug commercialization processes, as well as extensive experience in engaging members of the healthcare community. To learn more about Dr. Whittaker, please visit our staff webpage.

In-between her travels to the Invest in ME research conference in London, Dr. Whittaker took the time to respond to your questions about her work and approach.

  1. You have extensive experience in the clinical, scientific, public health, policy and communication aspects of health. What are the key driving factors that sparked your interest in ME/CFS and made you want to apply your skillset to solving this disease?

In learning more about ME/CFS, it was shocking to me that so many people are living with this debilitating illness and there is so little attention on it. I feel strongly that increasing recognition among both the general public and among healthcare providers in particular is the foundational element that runs through everything – advocacy, policy, government funding, earlier and more accurate diagnoses, and research.

I’m lucky in that I’ve had opportunities in my career to work on multiple aspects of healthcare, and I believe in this role I can bring all of them together to build on existing work and drive progress towards SMCI’s mission: make ME/CFS widely understood, diagnosable, and treatable.

In general, I am motivated by being able to use my skillset and experience to drive improvements in public health – I took this role because I believe I can make a difference. 

  1. What are your priorities for SMCI’s research initiatives and what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities as you step into the Chief Scientific Officer role?

I’m still really new to the role, so first I’d like to understand the state of play by conducting a search of the literature and understanding where the current research is focused; I am well into that work already. Then, I’d like to ensure we’re being strategic in our funding and being as nimble as we can be in our grants process.

In terms of opportunities, I believe the registry and biobank are absolutely critical and I’d like that to be a major focus going forward, exploring how we can do that in as collaborative way as possible – this is a global disease so let’s have a global registry and biobank that is available for anyone who needs it.

I am also a big believer in the power of big Pharma/biotech in developing treatments for disease, and I’d like to aggressively pursue partnership in that area- having big datasets on this disease as a result of the registry and biobank work will only help in that endeavor.

  1. How do you feel that collaborations and public-private partnerships can play a role in finding solutions for ME/CFS?

I feel VERY passionate about the power of collaboration, and not just public-private partnerships, but all kinds of collaborations –  to quote Winston Churchill, ‘If we are together, nothing is impossible’.

I believe that when two or more organizations come together around a shared goal, there is a synergistic force that enables you to achieve far more than either party could alone. I have seen this play out in collaborations that I’ve led in the past, whether in emergency health situations like the West African Ebola crisis, or in tackling ongoing health concerns like cancer.

There are two main elements to working together collaboratively with diverse stakeholders: first, identify a shared goal and always come back to that. In ME/CFS that is the easy part: make ME/CFS understood, diagnosable, and treatable. Second, honesty is key: there’s no room for politics. Public-private partnerships and collaborations work best when everyone wins, and when everyone is honest about what they hope to gain from the collaboration. There also has to be a recognition that some compromise may be required, but that you’re give a little to gain a lot.

It’s clear there is already a lot of collaboration going on among members of the ME/CFS community, but I would love to explore each and every opportunity to work together.

Specific to public-private partnership opportunities, I think there are opportunities to develop collaborations for awareness building, with, for example, the entertainment industry, who are masters of storytelling, as well as opportunities to expand relationships with biotech/pharma to drive towards treatments and cure. Last, digital health is an exciting and fast-growing area of healthcare, I would love to explore potential partnerships in that area: for example, could we integrate technology into our registry and use it to passively capture symptoms over time.

  1. From the perspective of someone new to the ME/CFS research field, how can we attract new researchers, clinicians, and supporters to work on this disease?

Again, I believe there an absolute need to increase overall recognition about this disease to attract researchers, both from academic settings as well as from biotech/pharma.

I also think there is an opportunity for researchers who are early in their career to make a mark in ME/CFS research; it’s not like cancer research for example, where it is much harder to own the space because it’s so crowded.  SMCI has a role to play in that by making it easy for those passionate about research in this area to have the available funds to pursue and develop that their research goals.

  1. You just attended the BRMEC8 conference in London. What are your takeaways from that experience?

The passion from everyone who works in this field came across loud and clear. There is an absolute determination to solve this complex, debilitating disease. It also feels to me that a model which encompasses the clinical manifestations of ME/CFS is emerging, and it will be exciting to see how that evolves over the coming months and years.

  1. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I have an almost 5-year-old, so free time is hard to come by! When I can carve out some time, I like to keep fit: I am a runner, I play soccer in a local league, and love yoga. I also like to exercise the creative side of my personality, and regularly take life drawing and watercolor classes.