Professor Richard Gilbertson is chidren's cancer expert and director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre.
Professor Richard Gilbertson spends his days carrying out pioneering research into children’s cancers at our Cambridge Cancer Centre.
A world-renowned expert in children’s brain tumours, Richard’s work is leading the way towards better, kinder treatments, helping more children survive their disease.
But Richard hasn’t always been a scientist – his journey into the lab began as a student in medical school.
So what drove him to trade his stethoscope for a microscope? And what motivates him as a researcher? Read Richard’s inspiring story below to find out how he’s helping make progress on children’s cancers.
Opening the door to research
Right now, more children than ever are surviving cancer.
And that’s thanks to research.
But while progress has been made, every year children still die from cancer; something that Richard is all too familiar with.
“Back in my second year of medical school, I saw a child dying of medulloblastoma,” he recalls. Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumour in children.
“I asked her doctor what treatments were available for her, and he said there weren’t any. He said that they had done everything they can, and that all they could do was let her die in peace.
A child shouldn’t have to die in peace – they should be able to enjoy the rest of their life.
– Professor Richard Gilbertson
“That made me angry. A child shouldn’t have to die in peace – they should be able to enjoy the rest of their life. And that’s what motivated me as a medical student to start working on medulloblastoma.”
Though that heartache and frustration may have ignited Richard’s passion, it was an evening at his local pub that same year which changed the course of his career forever.
“I was in the pub one night with my best friend and fellow medic Nigel,” Richard says. “He told me that at the end of our careers, no matter which field of medicine we chose, we should have been responsible for a 15% reduction in deaths from a disease that we worked on.
“I’ve never forgotten that. And I made it my goal to be able to say that when I retire, 15% more children will survive brain tumours because of the work that we do.”
And while there is no doubt that this ambition is a noble one, hanging up his stethoscope to achieve that goal was no rash decision.“I loved working with kids,” says Richard, “and I loved doing medicine. But I knew that to get to the 15%, it would be through research.
“So that meant opening the door on the lab and closing the door on the clinic forever. But I haven’t regretted it.”
Throughout his career, Richard has seen more and more children being cured of medulloblastoma.
But he points out that while boosting survival is the mainstay of cancer research, in some cases this has not been without cost.
“The significant improvements in survival of medulloblastoma have been achieved through increasingly intense treatments, which are associated with serious long-term side effects,” Richard says.
“Of course, doctors and parents want cures. But when you have no rule books, how do you decide when to reduce treatment for patients to lower the risk of these effects later in life?”
That’s where Richard’s work comes in.
His lab is interested in the origins of cancers, particularly children’s brain tumours. Through his research, Richard hopes to answer this burning question which has stumped scientists and doctors alike for decades: why, when treated the same way, do some children with brain tumours survive while others sadly don’t?
Through answering this, he hopes to be able to improve treatments so that children are given the minimum amount needed to cure their disease, while sparing their developing bodies lasting damage.
And over the past 15 years, Richard and his team have made significant progress towards this goal.
Walking the treatment tightrope
Largely thanks to his research, we now know that medulloblastomas are not one single disease, but rather a collection of diseases born from different brain cells and involving different genetic flaws.
And perhaps most importantly, earlier this year his team shed first light on why some types of medulloblastoma are curable. And, therefore, why others aren’t.
“We found that these more treatable tumours produce lots of proteins that make them ‘leaky’ to drugs,” Richard says. “So for these children the door is always open to chemotherapy, which is why the tumours respond well to the treatment.
“And we could switch this effect on and off in cells in the lab. So if we could make harder-to-treat forms of the disease produce these proteins in patients, then perhaps we could allow more chemotherapy drugs to flood in and make the tumours curable.”
And it’s this knowledge, Richard says, that will help researchers along the path to more personalised treatments.
“Understanding the biology of tumour cells provides doctors with rules and directions that they can follow to tread that fine line between cure and harm,” he says.
“That’s my research.”
Dreaming of empty rooms
It can take years, even decades, for research to be translated into something that benefits patients.
But the more scientists work together, exchanging ideas, resources and expertise, the faster their discoveries can make their way into the clinic.
That’s why Richard fills the gaps of his demanding schedule as a researcher with directing our Cambridge Cancer Centre.
“What we’re doing here is bringing together a range of disciplines – doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers, chemists and physicists – all under one roof, working on the most devastating cancers of both children and adults,” he says.
“This means we can see how to best place people to make the biggest impact on curing these cancers.
I firmly believe we’ll cure brain tumours. I’m absolutely committed to that.
– Professor Richard Gilbertson
“It’s incredibly exciting.”
And though the journey ahead may be long and difficult, for Richard, cures are in sight.
“I firmly believe we’ll cure brain tumours,” he says. “I’m absolutely committed to that.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy – I’ve been working on it for 20-30 years. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe it were possible.”
And unlike most of us, he’s committed to putting himself out of a job.
“What if I was to open the door to the clinic and it was to be empty?” he wonders.
“That would be magic.”
- Find out more about Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens – our campaign to raise money for research into cancers affecting children, teens and young adults.