Behind the Microscope – Dr Sandra Costigan

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Behind the Microscope – Dr Sandra Costigan
Behind the Microscope – Dr Sandra Costigan
Dr Sandra Costigan
Principal Toxicologist

26 February 2021

Science and innovation are the foundation of building A Better Tomorrow, and at BAT our 1,500 scientists are focused on a wide range of activities that allow us to create new and improved products of high quality and safety standards that consumers enjoy.  It is also fundamental to ensure we understand and can substantiate the ability of our new category products to contribute to tobacco harm reduction.

Scientists are playing a vital role in helping to transform BAT, and our Behind the Microscope series profiles the work and perspectives of some of our industry-leading researchers, who provide their insights, expertise and the inspiration behind their love of science. In the first in the series, we spoke to Principal Toxicologist, Dr Sandra Costigan.

Pursuing a career in scientific research

Born in the Netherlands, the seeds of Sandra’s love of science were sown in secondary school. “I remember we were looking at the immune system, and something really struck me. To have a system that’s so complex and so responsive to something that it doesn’t yet know is going to happen and it hasn’t even seen yet, I thought that was amazing. I was fascinated by the complexity and the cleverness of it. I thought it was so interesting and that’s one of the things that made me think I’d want to do something more in science.”

Like many future scientific researchers, it was a desire to understand ‘why’ that pushed Sandra into studying Molecular Sciences, a degree she chose because it combined her favourite subjects of biology, chemistry, physics and maths. She then went on to gain her PhD in Biology - Electrophysiology, working on the kidneys of ants.  Her first job allowed her to apply but also continue to develop her understanding of science, working as a Regulatory Toxicologist for Proctor & Gamble in Consumer Product Safety, focused on detergents and fabric care.

After several years at P&G, Sandra relocated to the UK and undertook some post-doctoral research jointly at Imperial College London and Bristol University, before leaving academia to join the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the Government body responsible for ensuring the safety, quality and efficacy of medicines and medical devices used in the UK.

“That was a very interesting period for me and there was so much to learn as I grew in seniority as a medical devices specialist. I worked in the Biosciences and Implants unit, so one day I might be looking into adverse events with pacemakers, stents or hip implants, and the next reviewing the toxicology assessment of a clinical trial application for a colostomy bag. With so much interesting work, there’s no surprise I was able to use some of it as the research project for my second MSc in toxicology, an area my original degrees hadn’t covered. Then, towards the end of my time at the MHRA I had a great role as a horizon scanner, identifying emerging and converging trends in healthcare, such as robotics, tissue engineering and nanotechnology, and identifying how the agency could be prepared for these new developments.” 

Sandra’s next move took her to the Department of Health for a job that has had an unexpected resonance since the beginning of 2020. “After leaving the MHRA, I became the Science Manager for the Pandemic Influenza Unit and, during my two years in the Department of Health, I set up several of the advisory committees that we’ve been hearing from so regularly over the past year. When I left the job, it was a couple of months before the 2009 influenza pandemic, so I watched from afar how the preparations we had made overcame what that pandemic threw at us.”

Putting consumers first

In 2009, Sandra joined BAT. “The reason I moved here was because some really interesting research was taking place and, even back then, the company was already seriously involved in Tobacco Harm Reduction.”

When BAT then expanded into new territory with the launch of our first vaping product in 2013, she led the development of novel approaches to safety assessment for this new product category. Supported by BAT’s wish to ensure high safety standards for consumers, Sandra has been instrumental right from the beginning in developing national and international technical standards for vaping products.

“I’m very lucky that this new type of product fitted very nicely with my experience in consumer products, tobacco products and working with regulatory bodies. It also proved very useful that I’d been a member of scientific committees, been secretariat for some and even set some up. Having these insights into committee work really helped when working with the diverse stakeholders for the creation of technical standards, as well as the practicalities of moving items forward in a highly structured system. The latter is surprisingly important, given that in this new area, there was a high percentage of vaping industry and consumer stakeholders who had no experience working in a complex matrix. They had unrealistic expectations and needed guidance to help them achieve what they were aiming for.”

During her 12 years at BAT, Sandra has covered a range of positions, including 18 months as a Senior Scientific Engagement Manager, and her never-ending fascination for science continues to motivate her work.

“I think one of the reasons I continue to be really interested in what I do for BAT is because as we grow, we continually encounter new things. The company has now moved into the Beyond Nicotine space, so that’s suddenly an area in which we’re talking about completely new products that need to be assessed in their own right. That means there’s a lot of new things to keep your curiosity going and to keep you learning as you go along, and as a scientist, I find that really exciting.”

Sharing and enabling best practice

As well as her work at BAT, Sandra is also member of the International CEN (European Committee for Standardization) Working Group on e-liquids. In this role she is currently participating in the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco’s Annual Meeting (24-27 February), representing a cross-industry team to present a poster titled “Developing a European Technical Standard for E-liquid Ingredients”.

Sandra has been working on the development of International Standards for a number of years and she says it is essential that scientists play a significant role in ensuring these alternative nicotine products are of a high quality.

“It’s great that we’re able to be part of these Working Groups,” Sandra says, “I see it as part of our contribution. We are able to dedicate significant resources to the research needed to help establish appropriate product safety standards. Some of the smaller companies in the e-cigarette market might not be able to afford to employ the experienced teams of toxicologists that we have here at BAT, so sharing our knowledge with the industry, the scientific community and regulators helps ensure that higher quality products are brought to market.”



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