A mix of biochemist, physiologist and entrepreneur.
Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Kieran Clarke studied for her undergraduate BSc (Hons) in Biological Sciences at Flinders University.
She obtained her PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Queensland before taking a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University Medical School Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Laboratory between 1985 and 1989. After Harvard, Prof. Clarke was appointed Group Leader for the National Research Council of Canada and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Physiology at Ottawa University in Canada. In 1991, she joined the University of Oxford as Professor of Physiological Biochemistry and Head of the Cardiac Metabolism Research Groups in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics.
She has over 25 years research experience in magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and spectroscopy to non-invasively measure human cardiac, brain and skeletal muscle function and energy metabolism.
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
My grandmother was a nurse in the 1st World War and, as a child, I loved looking at her old nursing books, so I wanted to be a nurse. My parents thought that medicine would be better, so I decided to become a doctor, work in a leper colony, die of leprosy and be made a saint. After the Church got rid of my favorite saints, I decided that becoming a saint may be a little difficult and the risk was not worth losing my fingers and toes to leprosy. At about that time, I read my grandmother’s books on Marie Curie, the first woman scientist to receive a Nobel Prize, and Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. I decided, rather than going for a sainthood, that I would have a better chance at winning a Nobel Prize as a scientist. Then, when I was about 15, my father took me to an open day at a research institute in Adelaide which convinced me to study science. At the Institute, I saw lovely young men running exciting instruments – both the men and the machines looked good to me. The men told me that science was a universal language, so scientists could work anywhere in the world. In short, science was the way to do both something exciting, like Marie Curie, and to travel the world, like Amelia Earhart. I have worked at 4 Universities in Australia, at Harvard University, at the National Research Council in Ottawa and, for the past 30 years, at the University of Oxford. And loved every minute. My father told me to do something that I loved and try to get paid to do it. And I have.
When did you start your research on ketones?
My ketone research started in 1993, when a surly old scientist called Dr Richard Veech visited our lab in Oxford to ask us to run an experiment to look at the effects of ketones on energy levels in the heart. At the time, we ran one of the very few instruments in the world that could do this – an NMR Spectrometer. I was a little annoyed at his request but thought that doing the experiment would be the best way to get rid of Dr Veech. However, after I saw the astounding results, I was hooked on ketone research.
What has been the most exciting part of your ketone journey?
The entire ketone journey has been exciting because we could have failed at every step. Probably most exciting was finding that the ketone ester that we had made in Oxford really did improve exercise performance in rowers.
Looking back, if you could pick the people who impacted your research the most, who would you pick?
People who have impacted my research the most have been my mentors - my biochemistry and physiology higher degree supervisors at Flinders and Griffith Universities in Australia, Dr Joanne Ingwall at Harvard University, and Professor Sir George Radda at Oxford.
What do you want people to know about your work?
It would be great if people understood that the ketone ester was not invented overnight. It took years of difficult research by many scientists around the world, who were (at first) ridiculed by those who do not understand metabolism or the power of ketones.
What would you like your legacy to be?
It would be a wonderful legacy if the ketone ester became universally known and included in everyone’s diet - it is the fourth food group after all.
For someone who doesn’t understand science, how would you explain ketone esters?
Before explaining esters, I would explain what ketones are and how they are made naturally in the body. Ketones are small molecules – a fuel made in the liver from fat - that provide instant energy for the brain when carbs, which provide glucose, are not being eaten. Ketones can come as salts, such as sodium and potassium. To raise ketone levels sufficiently to be useful, too much salt needs to be consumed at the same time. We worked out a way of giving ketones in a drink without salt – by joining two ketone molecules together using an oxygen molecule. The oxygen link is called an ester link and this is easily broken down in the human digestive system.
What makes your Oxford ketone ester so beneficial?
The Oxford ketone ester is an instant form of energy, providing a fuel for the mitochondria (the furnaces) in all the cells in the body. The body prefers ketone fuel to carbs and fats as it is more rapidly metabolised (burnt) to provide energy. The ketone ester also helps to normalise glucose, triglyceride, lactate and cholesterol levels in the body, it decreases inflammation and prevents free radical damage.
What are the benefits of the ketone ester that you are most excited about?
The most exciting aspect of the Oxford ketone ester will be its use for chronic diseases, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. It is not a cure, but it will alleviate the symptoms and delay the progression of the disease.
What do you see in the future for ketone esters?
The future for the Oxford ketone ester will be, I hope, that it becomes affordable so that anyone can, and will, be helped by its remarkable properties.