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Techniques & Tools Liquid Chromatography, Gas Chromatography, Pharma & Biopharma, Mass Spectrometry, Preparative/Process Chromatography

Curator of Good Science

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Like most little boys of my generation, I started off wanting to be a fighter pilot, but in my teens some excellent teachers got me hooked on science. My parents encouraged my passion – first buying me chemistry sets, and later a garden shed that I turned into a rudimentary laboratory. I spent many happy hours there experimenting with different chemicals, including such wholesome substances as bromine and chlorine.

What turned you on to analytical science?

I got my first taste of analytical chemistry while studying mitochondrial biogenesis in yeast, which involved using preparative LC columns to isolate the DNA. Later, I decided there was no future in molecular biology (prophecy was never my strong point) and went to work with Keele University’s David Morgan on insect molting hormones as potential pesticides. We extracted the hormones with solvents before conducting GC with electron capture detection – the sensitive detector of its era. As it turned out, the hormones were useless as a pesticide, at least against locusts, but the experience turned me into an analytical chemist. There were few jobs available to analytical chemists-cum-entomologists so, after a short post doc at University College Hospital London, I moved into the pharmaceutical industry for the next 30-plus years.

What did you enjoy about working in pharma?

In short: working with other highly motivated scientists in a multidisciplinary team on a meaningful goal. It was nice to have access to all the latest analytical equipment, too. These days, I worry about the future of pharma. Many major pharma companies have now contracted, merged or disappeared – in my view, that’s not success, it’s circling the wagons. It’s getting harder and harder to discover new drugs, get them into the market, and recoup the costs.

But, from the point of view of analysis, pharma has done a lot to drive the development of analytical science; for example, the rise of LC-MS began in applications arising from the needs of bioanalysts for very sensitive detection of drugs in biofluids.

What’s your current focus?

I’m still doing a lot of work on drug metabolism and toxicology, but also collaborate with colleagues at the MRC-NIHR National Phenome Centre on metabonomic (also known as metabolomic) studies. Originally set up to take advantage of the analytical equipment left over from anti-doping testing for the 2012 Olympic Games, the Phenome Centre was designed for large-scale metabolic phenotyping (metabonomics/metabolomics) of samples obtained in epidemiological studies, for example, using NMR spectroscopy and LC-MS.

What are some of the most interesting developments in analytical science right now?

The mantra of “smaller, better, faster” is still very much what drives us. Some people say that we’ve gone as far as we can go with LC, but they are talking nonsense. After all, nothing much seemed to be happening in LC towards the end of the 20th century; then UHPLC came along, and I saw the whole field change overnight. Is UHPLC the be-all and end-all of LC? I doubt it – I think there are many innovations to come. The ambition is still there to do more – just look at the Million Peaks Project led by Peter Schoenmakers at the University of Amsterdam (see

What’s your proudest achievement?

Probably the most influential work I have been part of was the development of a tool for quality control (QC) in metabonomics: at its simplest, these QCs are prepared as you aliquot your racks of samples, when you put a little of each sample into a “gestalt” or pool sample. Then you analyze that sample at regular intervals throughout the run. If your analytical method is perfect, the gestalt sample would appear in your principal components analysis as a single central spot. Of course, no method is perfect, so you actually end up with a cloud of spots. Broadly speaking, the tighter the clustering of the QCs, the better. It’s been great to see this approach being widely adopted.

However, as you get older you realize that your best achievement is the people that you work with and mentor/develop, or the PhD students that you train. I have always held that the secret to success is hiring people smarter than you...

Is UHPLC the be-all and end-all of LC? I doubt it – I think there are many innovations to come.

Do you still have a science shed?

These days I have a cellar, which I have filled with “historic” chromatographic instruments. As time went on I saw the whole history of chromatography being thrown in the trash, and I felt it was important to preserve some of it. The smaller instruments like LC pumps and gas chromatographs are readily portable, so I started rescuing them and taking them home. Soon people starting donating interesting instruments, and I now have a collection of around 60 chromatographs. As the number grew, my wife was indulgent enough to let me convert our cellar into a museum of sorts, and I’ve recently started working with a colleague, who is an excellent photographer, to document the collection.

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About the Author
Ian Wilson

Ian Wilson is Chair in Drug Metabolism and Molecular Toxicology, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Surgery & Cancer, Imperial College London, UK.

For his PhD, Ian Wilson used GC to analyze steroid hormones in insects. Much of his subsequent career has been in the pharmaceutical industry, working in discovery and development. In 2012, Ian moved to Imperial College, London. His research interests include separations science, particularly the development of hyphenated techniques in chromatography, and spectroscopy, and the application of these techniques to problems in drug metabolism and metabonomics. When not working on these topics he collects old instruments and has a large collection of old gas and liquid chromatographs.

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