It can take up to 15 years to develop a new medicine, with rigorous investigations carried out along the way to monitor and improve its effectiveness and safety. But we don’t stop there – we keep monitoring medicines after they become available to patients to check there aren’t any unexpected side effects.
It’s Vanesa’s job to investigate cases where the unexpected does occur, find out what happened and make recommendations to help keep patients safe in the future.
‘Detective’ is a great word to describe what I do because I’m always investigating. My team is responsible for monitoring the safety profiles of medicines, so when a patient reports an adverse side effect, we have to understand what happened and identify the culprit.
The medicine we take, no matter how safe and effective it is, can sometimes result in unexpected side effects. When this happens, it is reported to us and then we jump into action. Through our investigations we examine if the side effect is caused by the medication or an underlying disease, for example, or whether environmental or genetic factors could have played a part. If needed, we will recommend new ways to reduce risk in the future and help keep patients safe.
If I could tell patients one thing, it would be this: if something doesn’t go to plan with your medication, provide lots of detail when you report it. We need more information than just the drug and its effect. Why did you take the medication? How long were you taking it? Were you taking any other medication at the same time? Have members of your family experienced anything similar? All this and more will help us investigate what happened.
I actually trained to be a veterinarian. I love animals, but somewhere along the way I realised I also care about people too! That’s why I began my career in the research sector. I now have a PhD in molecular biology, so the combination of all these things is very helpful to me in the work I do.
Changing career was a huge leap of faith. I wanted to get closer to patients after 13 years as a pharmacology researcher. In research, you conduct experiments and look at substances that aren’t even at the development stage yet. But patient safety is an area where I can actually listen to patients. I’m happy I took the leap; I’ve seen the industry from a different perspective, I’ve met new people, and I’m much closer to patients, which is what I really care about.
There’s a very personal aspect to patient safety. Some of the cases I have investigated have made me very sad. When you care, you live with these people, you live with what they’re going through, and you really want to help them.
The older I get, the more I feel an urge to share my knowledge. This is the reason I came up with the idea to create the book our team wrote about drug safety. We designed it for patients – to explain how and why they should report side effects, and what happens when they do. It’s good for them to know that patient information leaflets may get updated according to the information they give us.
Reading science fiction is my guilty pleasure. People usually expect me to be really serious because of the work that I do, but actually I like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings – the books and the films. Now my children are older, whenever there’s a birthday and they want to take their friends to the cinema, we go with them – not so much to look after them, but to see the movie too!
I love TED Talks. I recently listened to Alexander MacDonald's ‘How centuries of sci-fi sparked spaceflight’. I like the remembrance of beautiful minds such as Jules Verne’s or Leonardo da Vinci’s; the people who were way ahead of their time. The way they initiated change and affected the processes of the future is amazing.
The best advice I’ve ever received was from my dad. When I was in first grade, he told me: anything is possible. You just need to reach for it if you really want it to happen. I took this advice and it’s something I live by. I believe that whatever you want to be, whatever you want to accomplish, you can do it.
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