Lisa Bonadonna

Head, Save the Children partnership

Woman in bid to save hundreds of thousands of lives

Dr Lisa Bonadonna’s teenage daughters have begun to show an unusual interest in her work. She heads a ground-breaking partnership between GSK and Save the Children, with the ambitious goal of helping to save the lives of one million children by sharing medical and humanitarian expertise. “At times, it can feel like an overwhelming responsibility,” she says. “I ask myself what I’ve done with the day and question whether I’ve achieved enough. Even my two daughters, who never showed much curiosity about my previous roles, now hold me to account on a daily basis.”

Nearly two years into the five-year union, which both organisations hope will provide a blueprint for future collaborations, Dr Bonadonna is relishing the challenges – when she has a chance to take stock. “I used to deal with qualitative and numerical challenges, but this is entirely different and based on a fundamental and human level,” she says.

She originally joined the pharmaceutical sector in her twenties as a stop-gap to pay the bills; she had a PhD in Immunology and had reached a natural break in her research. “It wasn’t planned in any way, but once in the industry, I had an early taste of clinical trials, ethics and drug regulations, and I was hooked. I’d moved from the abstract to actually impacting on people’s lives,” says Dr Bonadonna.

Working her way from her native Australia to Europe with GSK, she also gathered further qualifications along the way – an MBA, and, more recently, a master’s in public health policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) – both completed alongside her day job. “I squeezed a lot into 24 hours. I find learning keeps my mind fresh and up to date,” she says.

Her current role seems tailor-made, drawing on her scientific knowledge, management expertise and understanding of social policy. Under the partnership, she oversees 10 different projects – some of them science-based, such as research and development, and delivery of vaccination programmes. “It’s all about making sure that the right medicines and vaccines get to those who are hardest to reach in places such as remote Western Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” she explains. “I genuinely believe that unless you have an understanding of the science behind the interventions, you won’t be able to make the best, timely and practical decisions.”

One project the partnership hopes will succeed is the reformulation of the antiseptic ingredient contained in GSK’s mouthwash into a gel for use in cleansing newborns’ umbilical cords – which could save one in six lives in poorer countries. And another joint-project team is currently assessing whether alternative sources of ready-to-use therapeutic foods can be identified to help in the fight against malnutrition, which kills a third of under-fives in poorer countries.

Dr Bonadonna was moved to see how facilities had been transformed for Kenyan women when she made a trip to a remote part of the country. “It was so uplifting. I saw the results of the investment – facilities not fit for purpose had become efficient clinics, no different to the sorts of places where I’d given birth,” she recalls. “This particular clinic is now delivering in excess of 70 babies a month, giving these infants and their mothers a greater chance in life.”

While the scale of challenges this partnership tackles – such as child mortality and malnutrition – might dwarf any development or commercial issues Dr Bonadonna has faced previously, she’s enjoying an unprecedented level of cooperation among all those involved. GSK employees have thrown themselves into raising funds, which the company will then match. “The challenges are incredible, but I’ve met virtually no resistance in getting support, resources and people’s attention,” she says. “We have an audacious goal – helping to save one million children’s lives – and feel that everyone is doing whatever they can to help us get there.”

This article first appeared on the Telegraph STEM Awards website.

For further information about Lisa and the Save the Children partnership: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/a-drug-company-with-a-conscience-glaxosmithkline-trying-to-save-1-million-childrens-lives/story-fneuzlbd-1227475384569