Professor Stephen Holgate of the University of Southampton has been knighted for services to medical research in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Professor Holgate is Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology and Honorary Consultant Physician within the University’s Faculty of Medicine and University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust.
Recognised as one of the top specialists in his field, both nationally and internationally, Professor Holgate’s many leading appointments, including Government advisor, underline his high level of expertise and experience. He has devoted his career to focusing on the interface between basic sciences and clinical application to improve our understanding and treatment of allergy and asthma and remains one of the world’s foremost spokespeople on the dangerous impact of air pollution.
He is also one of the cofounders of Synairgen, a University of Southampton spin-out company established in 2004 to develop inhaled interferon beta which has proven effective against viral respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
“I’m really surprised to receive this honour,” said Professor Holgate. “Looking back on a lifetime of research, translating biological science into human disease and then improving human health as a consequence has been a rewarding journey in its own right and I’m truly most fortunate to have experienced this.”
“This is a celebration of 45 years of hundreds of people’s work that have contributed to this journey,” he continued. “So, the fact that this honour has come to me, makes me feel privileged and honoured but it really is what everyone else has done to help create this incredible recognition.”
Professor Holgate also singled out the University of Southampton for being the right place to have come to in 1980 to then achieve so much over the years.
“I had a choice when I left London, went to America and came back,” he recalls. “Southampton had a new medical school at that time, and it was an incredibly exciting place to come.
“Despite all of the places one could have gone, this University and its new medical school created opportunities for me that I would never have, had I gone to a more traditional environment, and that’s helped in my ‘translational’ journey towards human and societal benefit.”
Professor Holgate credits pharmacologist Martin Church (now retired) as one of the “amazing people” he’s worked with across his career. He also praises Southampton colleagues Professors Donna Davies, Peter Howarth and Ratko Djukanovic as well as the extraordinary help of Frank Anderson who “helped me understand the importance of doing work that translates into important clinical developments.”
One of those developments was Synairgen – a spin out company created by the three of them that Professor Holgate says explains, was based on understanding why patients with lung disease are so vulnerable to respiratory viruses, like the common cold, and how this could be rectified.
“By finding the abnormality as a defect in the production of a crucial protective substance (interferon beta), we were able to develop a treatment that could replace the missing molecule in the anti-viral immune response. Synairgen is developing inhaled interferon beta showing benefit in severe asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and, most importantly, in hospitalised patients with COVID-19,” he concluded.
Amongst Professor Holgate’s many awards, medals and honorary positions from Universities and academic institutions around the world is a CBE awarded in the Queen’s New Year Honours 2011 for services to clinical science. Two years ago, he received the President’s Medal from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) for his personal contribution to public health, particularly air quality, over many decades as well as his exceptional service to the RCP.
In 2016 he chaired an RCP working party that published a landmark report setting out the dangerous impact of air pollution on the UK’s health. The report, Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution revealed for the first time that around 40,000 deaths a year in the UK can be linked directly to air pollution.
Earlier in 2018, Professor Holgate continued to put pressure on policymakers to act on air pollution, insisting that “we need immediate action that will deliver health benefits in the shortest time possible, to ensure that people do not have to suffer the devastating consequences of breathing polluted air.”
Stephen has also been instrumental in developing important partnerships which generate philanthropic income. 23 years ago he established the AAIR charity which supports research into asthma and allergies. And more recently he has been working with University colleagues to raise much needed funds for food allergy research. He helped forge an important new collaboration with the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation to advance knowledge and education on this important topic which, for too long, has been under -resourced. Capitalising on Southampton’s strength in translational medicine, the shared objective is to provide evidence to inform policy changes and improved clinical care for food allergic patients.
Professor Mark E Smith, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton said: “I am delighted for Stephen in achieving this much-deserved recognition for the excellent contribution he has made to our understanding and treatment of respiratory and allergic diseases and most recently COVID-19, that has impacted positively so many people in the UK and around the world. He has had an extraordinary career which the University of Southampton benefitted from. I congratulate him on behalf of the university community on this very fitting honour.”
Professor Diana Eccles, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Southampton added: “We are so proud and privileged to have Stephen Holgate as our colleague and friend here at the University of Southampton and we extend our warmest congratulations to him. By achieving his Knighthood, Sir Stephen exemplifies the dedication and devotion to a lifetime’s work that has brought great research insight into a field that affects so many millions of people and delivered so many benefits to the University and society as a whole.”
After completing his medical training in London, Professor Holgate spent two years at Harvard Medical School with Drs K Frank Austen and Stephen Wasserman to acquire skills in allergic disease mechanisms. On returning to Southampton in 1980, he set up a research group focused on the causative processes leading to asthma and allied diseases. He has utilised many approaches to study asthma including epidemiology, genetics, pathology, microbiology and immunology, pharmacology and experimental medicine. This research has informed guidelines on asthma management and has identified and validated novel treatment targets.
He has published in excess of 1,000 peer review papers achieving an h index of 170 and has been a co-editor of the world’s leading allergy textbook, Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practice for the last 4 editions.
Professor Holgate is a Past President of the British Society of Allergy, Clinical Immunology, British Thoracic Society and the Collegium International Allergologicum (CIA). He is a member of the UK Natural Environment Research Council, Special Advisor to the Royal College of Physicians on Air Quality and UKRI Clean Air Champion, Trustee of Cancer Research UK and the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation.
He is Chair of the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research, was founder member of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and has established a new clinical and veterinary section of the Academia Europaea, the Europe-wide Academy that encompasses all fields of scholarly inquiry. He was also a Member of the World Allergy Organisation (WAO) Board and has been recipient of a number of awards, most recently the International Distinguished Fellow of the ACAAI and the WAO Lifetime Achievement Award.