At CRUK we award prizes to members of the research community to recognise their outstanding achievements. Our awards support and celebrate the incredible work, dedication and scientific innovation of those at the forefront of advancing our ability to prevent, detect and treat cancer, and their ability to engage and inspire the public with our research and cause, critical to raising our required funds.
Honouring a lifetime’s work: Mel Greaves
Our Lifetime Achievement Prize recognises those who have dedicated their lives to scientific endeavour and improving the outlook for people with cancer. In 2015 we awarded the Prize to Professor Mel Greaves.
A head and a heart
Though he originally trained in zoology and subsequently immunology, Mel has devoted much of his career to understanding the biology of childhood leukaemia. He attributes his research direction to a visit to a cancer ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the mid-1970s.
“My own children were three and five years old at the time, and I saw all these children, the same age as my own, stricken with this appalling disease. I started asking: what is leukaemia? What is the biology underlying this? And it was clear that nobody had a clue. Populations of cells were expanding, damaging bone marrow, and children were dying, but we had no idea why.”
Mel exemplifies the power of bringing diverse perspectives into the cancer research field. With his training in zoology, many of his most remarkable contributions to our understanding of cancer have come from a deep understanding of evolutionary biology and the role that evolutionary processes play in the origins and development of tumours.
“For decades we’ve tended to approach cancer as a genetic or genomic disease,” says Mel. “And that’s true, but it doesn’t capture the uniqueness of cancer. There are lots of genetic diseases, and they’re quite straightforward compared to cancer. Everything that’s puzzling and problematic about this disease reflects our evolutionary heritage and the propensity of cancer clones to evolve diversity. Evolution pervades everything in biology, and much in medicine.”
A legacy in leukaemia
In his mission to improve the diagnosis, therapy and prevention of leukaemia, Mel can undoubtedly claim to have made an extraordinary impact. Early in his career he applied his training in immunology, creating antibody probes with which to explore the characteristics of different types of leukaemia and differentiate between types of leukaemia in the clinic.
In more recent years, Mel and his team have made impressive leaps in our understanding of the preclinical development of leukaemia. His research programme has incorporated many creative methods, including the use of identical twin pairs and archived neonatal blood spots to uncover the in utero origins of childhood leukaemia and the temporal sequence of key genetic events.
Much of this research revolves around Mel’s ‘delayed infection’ model, or ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which provides an evolutionary explanation of causation for for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). “The idea incorporates the paradox that common infectious exposure in infancy is beneficial because it primes the immune system,” explains Mel. “A deficit of such exposures in modern hygienic societies leaves the immune system vulnerable to abnormal responses to later ‘delayed’ infections, which can trigger the emergence of overt leukaemia”
“The evidence for this model is now quite strong, and the final pieces of the puzzle are coming together, so we have a picture of the biology of this disease now that’s a long way removed from the ignorant state we were in 30 years ago, and that’s really pleasing.”
Mel joined The Institute of Cancer Research in 1984, and led the Leukaemia Research Fund Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology for many years. More recently, he founded the institute’s Centre for Evolution and Cancer, assembling an impressive new team to research how tumours evolve, with a particular focus on drug resistance.
In addition to his outstanding research achievements, he has had a significant impact as a teacher and mentor, including publishing two popular science books about cancer research. Our Prizes Panel had no doubt that he was a worthy winner of the Lifetime Achievement Prize.
“I was very pleased to get this prize. My dear friend and colleague Chris Marshall, who received this prize a few years ago, called it the ‘Old Geezer’s Award’. This old geezer intends to carry on as long as I’m excited by science and there’s still unfinished business.”
Recognising future leaders
The future of cancer research in the UK relies on the creativity, talent and original thought of the next generation of researchers. Our Future Leaders Prize recognises the very best researchers early in their careers. In 2015 we received more nominations than ever before, and the competition was fierce, meaning that, for the first time, we awarded three prizes.
Dr Chris Bakal, from The Institute of Cancer Research in London, is an innovative cell biologist bringing novel approaches to the investigation of fundamental problems in cancer research, such as cell proliferation, morphogenesis and migration. His achievements include pioneering high throughput imaging methods for the evaluation of cell shape, and using these to understand how cell shape is regulated, and the importance of altered cell shapes in cancer.
Dr John Brognard, at the CRUK Manchester Institute, is a biochemist who has made several important discoveries concerning oncogenic and tumour suppressing cell signalling. His group recently identified mixed lineage kinases (MLKs) as novel MEK kinases, demonstrated their ability to promote resistance to RAF inhibitors, and is now collaborating with AstraZeneca to develop novel MLK inhibitors and identify relevant biomarkers.
Dr Peter Van Loo, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, is a genomicist and computational biologist who has made important contributions to the analysis of cancer genomes. He is using cutting-edge technologies and developing new computational methods to analyse the subclonal genomic architecture of tumours, producing unprecedented insights into tumour evolution.
Translational cancer research
Our Translational Cancer Research Prize is awarded to a multidisciplinary team who have united in the quest to ensure scientific discoveries benefit patients and the public, and in doing so have made extraordinary breakthroughs.
In 2015 the prize was awarded to the team at the University of Birmingham and the CRUK Centre for Drug Development (CDD), led by Professor Alan Rickinson, who are behind the MVA EBNA1/LMP2 therapeutic vaccine for Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) associated cancers.
EBV is a major global health burden, known to be associated with over 200,000 cases of cancer worldwide each year. However, EBV-associated cancers express viral proteins, making them a promising target for immunotherapies. The EBV vaccine team designed a candidate therapeutic cancer vaccine that has shown clinical activity in early phase trials.
Communicating complex research to a lay audience can be a big challenge but one that it is vital we overcome so the public and our supporters understand the impact of their donations and are inspired to continue to raise funds for our life-saving research. The commitment and ingenuity of our research community in finding creative ways to bring the impact of our research to life is astonishing, and in 2015 we launched three new prizes to celebrate our most inspiring science communicators.
The Inspiring Leadership in Research Engagement Prize honours someone who demonstrates significant commitment to public engagement with science, and has embedded a culture of public engagement within their institution or research group. In 2015 this was awarded to Edd James from the CRUK Southampton Centre. Edd has captured the imagination of people from all walks of life, by taking complex concepts and making them accessible, whether exploring cells through homemade microscopes or talking cancer immunotherapy whilst shooting targets with lasers.
The Rising Star in Research Engagement Prize recognises someone who demonstrates commitment to stimulating enthusiasm and interest in cancer research among the general public. In 2015 this prize went to Andrew Holding at the CRUK Cambridge Institute for his creative approach to research engagement across a broad range of activities, including radio, podcasting, and school visits. Andrew has a talent for encouraging other scientists to use humour to communicate their research, and his enthusiasm has motivated many researchers within the Institute to get involved in research engagement.
The Communications and Brand Ambassador Prize recognises an inspiring communicator of CRUK research to the public through media work. In 2015 this was presented to Vicky Forster from the Northern Institute for Cancer Research at Newcastle University for sharing her personal journey with a broad audience. Vicky draws on her experience of cancer to bring her research into the public domain, bridging the gap between patients and laboratory science.
Producing science communication events and activities that captivate lay audiences whilst maintaining the integrity of the underlying research is a real skill, and we are proud to have so many accomplished and inspiring communicators within our community. We were delighted with the response to our inaugural research engagement prizes: the volume and quality of engagement demonstrated by all nominees was inspirational.
This story is part of Pioneering Research: our annual research publication for 2015/16.