Dr Helen Lee

Scientist and Inventor

Dr Lee is an outstanding scientist and inventor who left her very successful career in industry to dedicate her working life to improve the health of those living in developing countries. She formed the Diagnostics Development Unit and over the past decade has developed rapid tests for the detection of chlamydia and trachoma, a disease rife in the poorest countries causing three million cases of blindness each year.

In order to develop the technology for large-scale production, Helen set up the Diagnostics for the Real World in 2002. This company produces these life-saving tests for resource- limited countries.

Dr Lee was the Winner of the Professional of the Year category at the 2007 Asian Women of Achievement Awards. In 2005, she also delivered the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture on 19 October.

The Award is made each year to “a person who has applied science and technology for the benefit of society”. Previous recipients include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the ‘father of the internet’, James Dyson, the inventor of the cyclone vacuum cleaner, Tim Smit, the Chief Executive of the Eden Project, and Ian Wilmut, the leader of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep.

Dr Lee’s citation by the Foundation for Science and Technology states that the award has been made for “her contribution to the application of technology to diagnostic development and the creation of ‘test and treat’ regimes”.

Dr Lee, Reader in Medical Biotechnology at the Department of Haematology of the University of Cambridge, has dedicated her career to diagnostics development and over the last 10 years has focused her efforts on developing diagnostic kits that serve the needs of developing countries.

In her lecture, Dr Lee explained that the diagnostics currently used for the detection of infectious diseases are often ill-suited to the needs of developing countries because they are complex, time-consuming and require highly-trained personnel as well as expensive instruments and test kits. In addition, the tests are often not sufficiently stable in conditions of high temperature and high humidity.

In order to ensure that resource-limited settings as wide a group as possible benefit from the tests developed by her team, Dr Lee co-founded a spin-out company, Diagnostics for the Real World, in 2002, with the scientists in her group and the University of Cambridge, as well as the Wellcome Trust as equity holders.

“The company aims to ensure that developing countries have access to appropriate, simple, rapid, high-quality yet inexpensive diagnostic tests,” said Dr Lee. “This means that product development priorities are not always based on purely for-profit motives. Another underpinning principle is that tests for developing countries must be of the same quality as those for developed countries.”

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Updated on 24 February, 2008


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