From science to law

23 March 2016

It never occurred to Dr Benny Lo (Croucher Scholarship 1998, Croucher Fellowship 2001) that he would ever pursue a career other than in science or medicine and he certainly never imagined he would end up working as a lawyer.

After receiving the highest first class degree in pharmacy at Nottingham University in 1997, Lo was drawn to pharmaceutical research. His PhD undertaken at the same university, supported by the Croucher Foundation, focused on antibody engineering and the development of new agents for targeting bladder and breast cancer. These cancers over-express a particular protein and Lo worked on targeting that protein with a payload of radioisotope-linked antibodies that function as ‘magic bullets’ for diagnosis and treatment. The engineering focus was to humanise a mouse monoclonal antibody that targets the same protein in order to avoid immunogenicity problems that could arise if the mouse antibody were directly injected into humans.

Many of the antibodies similar to the one he developed have become clinically proven pharmaceutical products and Lo was invited to publish a book on antibody engineering. On completion of his PhD, he was invited by the eminent British scientist and pioneer of antibody engineering, Sir Greg Winter FRS, to join his team at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) at Cambridge University. The LMB, once described as 'The Nobel Prize Factory' employs some of the most celebrated scientists in the world to advance the understanding of biological processes at the molecular level in order to solve key problems in human health.

At the LMB, Lo was tasked with more experimental research into in-vitro evolution, a pioneering protein engineering method that mimics the process of natural selection to evolve proteins toward a user-defined goal. In this type of directed evolution, a single gene is evolved by iterative rounds of mutagenesis, selection or screening, and amplification.

"We wanted to speed up evolution on a molecular level. It was not exactly 'Frankenstein research' but that was the general idea, albeit in a directed and controlled way," explains Lo. It was also a relatively young discipline and a challenging area on the furthest boundaries of molecular biology and Lo remembers much of the work being "hit and miss." As a results oriented person with a pharmacy background, he sometimes missed his work at Nottingham which was more translational and clinically-oriented.

By 2004 Lo was considering his future career options and felt it was time to return to Hong Kong after 12 years of successful work and study in the UK. A chance meeting with an investment banker from home, who had recently joined the law school at Cambridge University, raised the possibility of changing career completely. Lo had enjoyed dealing with patent lawyers during his research and was intrigued by the possibility of taking his scientific skills into the courtroom. He decided to take the chance and entered Cambridge University law school in 2004. His step away from science was not unique amongst his contemporaries, by any means. Lo estimates that of the research scientists and students he met at Cambridge, about 40%-50% moved out of science and into law, investment banking, or medical practice.

Sir Greg Winter was very positive about Lo's decision and advised him that a move sideways in a career can sometimes be more effective than a move forwards.

"He was very encouraging and I was not surprised by that. He was always very open and very entrepreneurial. Not a typical boffin at all," says Lo and thinks that his scientific training has provided him with skill set which is highly relevant to the legal profession.

"As a lawyer, just like as a scientist, you need to think both methodically and imaginatively, to home in on the correct issues and to research meticulously for a solution," he says. He has now practised for eight years as a barrister (and more recently also as an arbitrator) at Des Voeux Chambers and increasingly handles cases requiring his specialist scientific knowledge. Two of his early cases related to patent disputes over an anti-obesity drug and a drug for treating male hair loss. He has also acted for a traditional Chinese medicine company that had its product withdrawn from the market because they had not satisfied the regulatory body's requirements for product testing. Lo was not only able to assist in advancing relevant legal arguments but also advised his client on constructing a rigorous testing program that satisfied the regulator. Lo’s experience on handling intellectual property disputes has also enabled him to take on a widening spectrum of cases, including an international arbitration concerning certain US-patents on flat panel display technologies.

He admits to missing the sharing of research breakthroughs with friends and family but while he never regrets the years spent as a scientist, he thinks the career move was a sound decision. Lo believes his scientific record gives him a professional advantage in law and allows him to make a contribution to the development of Hong Kong and the region as a knowledge-based economy and an innovation hub for technology.

Dr Benny Lo read pharmacy at the University of Nottingham, where he graduated with the highest first class degree in the subject in 1997 and was awarded the Fitzhugh Memorial Prize for the most outstanding student and the Anita and Nicola Lee Prize for research. Upon completion of his clinical pharmacy training at the University Hospital Sheffield, Lo returned to Nottingham as a Croucher Scholar to pursue PhD research in developing humanised antibodies for cancer diagnosis and therapy. In 2001, Lo joined the laboratory of Sir Greg Winter, FRS at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology as a Croucher Fellow, to study protein engineering and in-vitro evolution. In 2004, Lo was admitted to read Law at the University of Cambridge and after graduating in 2006, Lo returned to Hong Kong and undertook professional training in law. In 2007, he was awarded the Charles Ching Memorial Scholarship by the Hong Kong Bar Association and was called to the Hong Kong Bar in 2008.

To view Dr Lo's personal Croucher profile, please click here.