Aberdeen’s Contribution to the Genetics Revolution

Thursday, 20 February 2020

From 1900 to 2100

Medico-Chirurgical Hall

President's Medal Lecture 2019/20

Professor Neva Haites OBE, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Genetics, University of Aberdeen

Neva Haites was born in Brisbane and obtained a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Queensland before moving to Aberdeen where she did her medical degree and training.

She is Emeritus Professor of Medical Genetics and is a retired Honorary Consultant Clinical Geneticist at NHS Grampian.  As a Clinical Geneticist she saw among other referrals, individuals and families with a history of cancer and provided counselling, genetic testing and services for surveillance where appropriate.

She has a special interest in inherited predisposition to cancer and chaired the Cancer Genetics Sub-Group of the Scottish Cancer Group. Professor Haites has been Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Life Science and Medicine and Vice Principal for Development at the University of Aberdeen.

Until recently, she was Vice President for Life Sciences at The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Her external roles include being a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and the Chief Scientist Committee of the Scottish Government, and Chair of the Biomedical and Therapeutics Research Committee. She has recently been a member of the Working Group of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics considering Genome Editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues.


2019 President’s medal Lecture

The President welcomed everyone to the meeting and noted that the excellent attendance, including several colleagues from genetics, was testament to the esteem in which the speaker is held by her colleagues. Two new members were welcomed to the Society and apologies were noted

Dr Reith then gave the history of the President’s Medal, and the qualities required for it to be presented, before introducing Professor Haites as the speaker for the evening and the 2019 recipient.

Professor Haites thanked the President for his welcome and noted that she was delighted to attend and give the lecture. She began by giving the background to the development of genetics as a specialty in Aberdeen. She noted that genetic variations underlie phenotypic differences and that there is significant variation in inherited diseases; sometimes the genetic component is clear, but it can be complex, with an environmental contribution.

The genetics department in Aberdeen was initially within the zoology building. Cells were cultured to look at chromosomes and gain more understanding of genetic disease. More formal chromosomal analysis began in the late 1970s. It was a laborious process involving cell culture, photographing of chromosomes and cutting out and matching photographs. Dr Kevin Kelly was the first head of the molecular genetics lab in Aberdeen, assisted by Caroline Clark. Professor Haites became Head of Service in 2002. At that time, a limited number of diseases were studied (linkage analysis in families); cystic fibrosis, myotonic dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. The genetics clinicians have been part of the service for many years: Dr John Dean, Dr Helen Gregory and Professor Zofia Miedzybrodzka. The clinical genetics service was first established by Drs Alan Johnston and Eric McKay. The service had a role in diagnosing complex disease and inheritance patterns. There are four specialist clinical genetics departments in Scotland; Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Each region used to have its own specialist area of interest, but all now work in a broader context.

Rather than talking about genetics, Professor Haites noted that she was keen to talk about team working and wished to mention several colleagues with whom she has worked over the years. She illustrated this with several team photographs.

In its first year, the genetics lab in Aberdeen studied DNA from 200 samples and looked at clinical associations.  Now in 2020:

  • Sophisticated apparatus and techniques
  • Nearly 50 staff
  • Diseases studied-inherited and somatic
  • In addition to inherited diseases, the lab now studies tumour material to predict treatment success and prognosis
  • 15000 samples per year are analysed

Progress 1980→2020

The clinical genetics budget in Aberdeen is now over £3 million per year. Progress has been achieved by team working and dedication to research. The team have helped to train scientists and clinicians for a number of roles through PhDs and other higher degrees. Many of their research and clinical graduates have made a significant impact in Aberdeen and elsewhere and remain in contact, letting the team know about their progress and family lives. Interests are broad; Charcot-Marie-Tooth, cancer prediction, retinitis pigmentosa and prostatic cancer. She mentioned several of her colleagues, some still within in Aberdeen and others working globally, including:

  • Caroline Clark - now leads a team of 50 scientists.
  • Ben Milner - in charge of somatic work for increased markers to improve clinical management of breast cancer patients with BRCA genes.
  • A pharmacy colleague is now a scientific director at GSK.
  • Dr Jen Goldstein is a clinical geneticist at University of North Carolina
  • Zul Mohammed - completed a PhD on retinitis pigmentosa, is now a professor at the University of Malaysia.
  • Dr Andy Schofield - completed a PhD and is now a senior lecturer in IMS.
  • Professor Hassan Roudgari - completed a PhD on families with breast and ovarian cancer. Now works at the Genomic Research Centre in Iran and established the first genetics clinic in Iran.
  • Dr Nigel Brockton - completed his PhD with the genetics team in Aberdeen and is now director of research at the American Institute of Cancer Research. He is a also a GB recordholder for speed skiing.

Professor Haites spoke warmly about her colleagues and her appreciation of the ongoing contact she has with many of them. She also noted the tolerance of her husband whilst she often remained at the lab to complete work or spent time involved with multiple committees.  Her national contributions include:

  • Chair of BSHG (British Society of Human Genetics)
  • Member of the National Screening Committee
  • Member of COMARE (Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment)
  • Member of HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority)

Since Professor Haites retirement, Professor Zofia Miedzybrodzka has led the genetics team in Aberdeen. One of her current interests is a trial on Huntington’s disease. The Huntington’s gene results in a damaged message and damaged protein manufacture in the brain, causing the symptoms of Huntington’s disease. The trial focusses on monthly injections of a drug into the spinal canal, with the drug disrupting the message by attacking the Huntington’s protein.

Professor Haites hopes that in future, genetic research will lead to more rapid diagnosis, better prognostics and better treatment. She concluded her talk by saying how much she had enjoyed her roles in both the NHS and the University of Aberdeen.


There were numerous questions prior to the conclusion of the evening when the President thanked Professor Haites and presented her with her President’s Medal.

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