After more than 20 years at the University of Southampton, and a distinguished career of working to improve the health of mothers and their children around the world, Professor Mark Hanson retires at the end of June.

Medically Speaking speaks to Professor Hanson about the highlights of his time in Southampton and what he is most proud of.

When did you join the University?

At the dawn of the new Millennium on 1st January 2000.

What different roles have you had while at the University of Southampton?

Initially I came to establish and lead a new Fetal Origins of Adult Disease Centre. Lucy Green and I moved from UCL and established a base in the Princess Anne Maternity Hospital. We set up labs there, built a facility in the BRU for recording from fetal sheep (as that was the model used at that time), linked with colleagues in the MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit (led by David Barker at that time before Cyrus Cooper took the helm), and with colleagues in biological and social sciences.

In 2002, I realised we needed to change the name of the field to Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) – to encompass the influence of early environment more widely than just in the fetal period and to emphasise the physiological processes being discovered related to health for everyone in the population as well as to the pathophysiological processes underlying later risk of disease.

How our early lives influence the rest of our lifecourse – DOHaD – soon became widely accepted and in 2003, at the international congress we organised in Brighton, we founded the International DOHaD Society.

When the University structure changed to Divisions, I led the DOHaD Division, and then went on to be the Director of the Institute for Developmental Sciences (IDS) when that was opened in 2007. I have had lots of support over the years, include the British Heart Foundation, who supported me as Professor until I was 65.

What has kept you at the University for more than two decades?

You mean when I haven’t been on the road, championing DOHaD? Well, because DOHaD is an interdisciplinary field and I’ve always valued the truly collaborative, team spirit which seems to be in the DNA of the University of Southampton. Or maybe it’s only in Southampton where the academic environment switched on the epigenetic processes which really made it a reality. I’ve been so lucky to have worked with a truly great range of colleagues – academic, technical and administrative – and a succession of students who have kept DOHaD young……. Why would I want to leave?

How would you describe the rate of progress in your field?

In retrospect, I would say very fast. But at the time, it sometimes felt frustratingly slow. At the Brighton Congress in 2003 where we founded DOHaD, the opening addresses were from the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the IVF leader Lord Robert Winston and the Head of the MRC. Princess Anne opened the Congress. We all thought that DOHaD would change biomedical science and clinical medicine overnight. But this was the time of great expectation that sequencing the human genome would uncover the origins of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease. It was not until we incorporated epigenetic discoveries into the story that mainstream thinking changed.

We also underestimated the resistance to DOHaD ideas from some clinical specialties focussed on diagnosis and treatment of adult patients with disease, and also the reluctance of some policymakers to engage in early prevention initiatives with outcomes seen as too vague and long-term. Working directly with clinical professional bodies, NGOs such as WHO, and policymakers helped to shift these agendas too and now people understand our research and are open to it.

What have been your highlights over the years?

There have been many, and I can’t claim they were mine alone by any means. But I think for the University and externally they would be Princess Anne opening the IDS and The Duchess of Wessex opening LifeLab.


What will you miss about the Faculty?

Meeting friends and colleagues in person regularly and the exchange of ideas. But, it won’t be long until we meet again, of that I am sure.

Reflecting on 20+ years with the Faculty of Medicine

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