In 2015, Professor Richard Gilbertson returned to the UK to lead the Department of Oncology and CRUK Major Centre at the University of Cambridge after 15 years at the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
One of the world’s leading experts in childhood brain tumours, Richard has led international efforts that have dramatically advanced knowledge of the biology of several of these cancers. Driven by a lack of biological understanding, his research has demonstrated that paediatric brain tumours are not single diseases, but distinct entities at the molecular and clinical level because they arise from different cells within the nervous system, and have different driver mutations. His findings are now translating into new treatments.
We caught up with Richard to find out more about his work and new life in Cambridge, why he has returned to the UK and the part CRUK played in enticing him back.
“I first got interested in medulloblastoma in 1987 when I did my first project as a medical student in Newcastle, nearly 30 years ago now! Back then we knew little about the biology of brain tumours. Driven by this lack of understanding, I set out to change this. Over the last 15 years, we have been able to show that these tumours are not single diseases, but arise from different cells in the brain. We have found mutations that drive these tumours, including a number of oncogenes and suppressor genes that control their growth. This is helping us understand how tumours are ‘born’ in the first place, and how they are driven through their life, from initial transformation of cells, through to progression and response to treatment.
The journey to Cambridge
I always wanted to be a doctor, for as long as I can remember. After completing my clinical training and PhD in the UK, I was really flattered to be approached by St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the world’s largest paediatric oncology centres, to see if I would be interested in setting up a research group in the states. So my family and I moved to Memphis in 2000, and I started my own lab. We went with the intention of staying for five years, and ended up staying for 15! During this time, I realised I could have the greatest impact on patients with cancer by staying in research, where I could work to improve fundamental understanding of paediatric brain tumours and how to treat them better. Ultimately I became the Executive Vice President of the Cancer Centre and Scientific Director, and I loved all my time there. In 2015, after 15 happy years, we returned to the UK to Cambridge, where I now head up the Department of Oncology, and lead the CRUK Major Centre.
The higher you climb in your career, the more you should care about those around you and their personal success.
My job as director of the Centre is both strategic and operational. We are setting our overarching vision and mission – to reduce the morbidity and mortality of patients with cancer through research, treatment and education, and are ensuring the Centre leverages all the tremendous science and medicine in Cambridge towards that vision.
Since I joined, we have identified 605 people working on cancer across the many schools and institutions in Cambridge. We have organised them into a new 12 programme structure focused around the eight most common and deadly cancers. We also have programmes in cell and molecular biology and cancer imaging, as well as an onco-innovation programme that brings together scientists and clinicians with pharmaceutical and industry partners to develop brand new diagnostics and therapeutics. Each programme includes 30 to 40 people from clinical and lab backgrounds as well as two senior representatives, who sit on an executive board. The executive sets the strategic vision and identifies the areas from each programme where we can have the greatest impact.
Life back in the UK
It’s great to be back in the UK – it really is a fantastic place to live and do research. The scientific diversity, deep intellect and innovative spirit of the people here is first class. The UK scientific community is comparable to, or exceeds, what I have experienced in the US. Cambridge is a truly multidisciplinary research environment that includes world-leading chemists, engineers and physicists. Engaging these disciplines in cancer diagnostics and treatment is very exciting, and working closely with colleagues studying adult cancer could reveal clues relevant to paediatric cancers.
When I was working in the US I heard a lot of concerns about UK science, such as lack of opportunity, poor infrastructure and underfunding. This has not been my experience – I think the opportunities for cancer research in the UK are fantastic. Yes, the UK is smaller than the States, with fewer universities, but it is home to a world-class research community where you can have a big impact.
The partnership between Cambridge University and CRUK played a major role in attracting me back. CRUK’s senior leaders took the time to get to know me personally. Their investment in my own research meant that I could leave a very well-resourced environment at St Jude. Since returning I’ve been welcomed into the CRUK community, and I’m privileged to sit on the Clinical Research Committee and be involved in great new CRUK initiatives.
The UK’s cancer research community is poised more than ever before to play an international leadership role in cancer. And I can testify that it welcomes anyone interested in joining the vision to bring forward the day when all cancers are beaten.”
Q & A
Why did you decide to specialise in children’s cancers?
I loved working on the paediatric wards, but I got intellectually very angry because there was very little that could be done for children with solid cancers, particularly brain tumours. At that time, we knew almost nothing about the commonest solid tumours in children, and there was little research going on. That was shocking to me and it had to change.
Why did you make the move to the bench?
I was in the pub one night with my best friend and fellow medic Nigel Stout, and he said, “When we retire we need to have been responsible for a 15% decrease in the death rate from any disease.” Although that was a throw-away comment, I’ve never forgotten it. When I was at St Jude, I realised I could do a good job working in the clinic looking after patients, and I loved doing clinical medicine. But because we knew nothing about the fundamental biology of paediatric brain tumours, I felt the best way to help more people survive was not by treating more patients the same way, but by advancing the understanding of the disease. This made me realise I really needed to do research.
What advice would you give junior researchers?
The higher you climb in your career, the more you should care about those around you and their personal success. The more successful the people around you are, the more successful and fulfilled you will be. Always engage with colleagues, and always give them the credit they deserve.
This story is part of Pioneering Research: our annual research publication for 2015/16.