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A legacy of ground-breaking research

by Nell Barrie | Analysis

9 September 2015

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Carol and John's generous gift is helping our scientists understand how cancers spread

When you think of donating to charity, the most familiar image is probably a pound coin dropping into a collection bucket. But not many people know that Cancer Research UK gets almost a third of its fundraising income from legacies – gifts left by to us by generous donors in their wills.

Legacies are absolutely crucial for the charity – they allow us to plan the long-term research that’s essential if we’re going to make progress against cancer. And this year, legacies raised a staggering £167 million for the charity.

So who are these thoughtful people that remember Cancer Research UK in their wills? And what sort of legacy does their generosity leave behind?

Thank you, Carol and John Sutherland

Carol Sutherland and her husband John were a loving couple with a huge network of friends and neighbours in Inverness and later Largs, Scotland.

Like so many other families across the UK, their lives were overturned by cancer when John died from oesophageal cancer in 2012. Carol lost her soul mate and life companion.

Only 18 months later, Carol died. The couple’s friend Bill Kean remembers this sad time: “Yes, there were medical complications at the end. But in my mind, Carol died of a broken heart.”

Carol and John left behind a legacy to Cancer Research UK – a generous gift from two ‘ordinary’ people who wanted to make an extraordinary difference.

Ground-breaking research

Carol and John wanted their legacy to fund research in Scotland, and that’s where our legacy team stepped in, working with Bill, their executor, to find the right place for their gift to help support world-leading science.

As luck would have it, Professor Robert Insall at our Beatson Institute in Glasgow was working on a cutting-edge piece of technology to track how cells move around – and the cost of the equipment was covered by Carol and John’s generous donation.

Professor Insall explains his work simply: “Do we understand how cells move around? No. We don’t. And if we’re going to tackle cancer, this is one of the crucial questions we need to answer.”

Professor Insall says the Beatson is leading the way in studying cell movement. It’s a question that really gets scientists thinking, because there’s so much we don’t know about this complex process.

And the implications for cancer research are huge. If we can understand how and why cells move from their normal positions to places where they shouldn’t be, we can tackle cancer spread – the cause of most deaths from the disease.

Professor Insall’s work made headlines around the world last year when he and his team uncovered a vital clue into how and why melanoma cells are so quick to spread around the body. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, and it’s well known for its ability to spread early and spread fast.

He’s justifiably excited by his discovery. “We discovered that melanoma cells are lured out of the tumour by a trail of chemical signals called LPA. They actually provide their own ‘green light’ to start spreading.” He likens this to a herd of cows that have finished off all the grass in their field – next they’ll start to look beyond the confines of their enclosure for more food.

“I was staggered when we filmed the trail because nobody had seen cancer cells move in such a directed way before. Our research means we might be able to work out if a tumour has spread just by looking at a sample. This could help tailor treatment for patients, so we only offer more intensive chemotherapy to those whose cancer has spread.”

And you can watch what the team saw when they made their discovery in the video below.

It’s fascinating science, but it’s also a fitting legacy for Carol and John. Their friend Bill met Professor Insall earlier this year, and left the Beatson Institute knowing his wonderful friends had invested in truly amazing research – he said it showed him the positive things that emerged from their deaths.

And for Professor Insall, people like John and Carol are part of Cancer Research UK’s work. His success is theirs – the research he’s doing belongs to people like them who are far-sighted enough to see that one day, together, we will beat cancer.