Sir Harpal Kumar

Sir Harpal Kumar

It’s the end of an era at Cancer Research UK: our Chief Executive, Sir Harpal Kumar, has stepped down after an illustrious career. Harpal joined us in late 2002 before being appointed Chief Executive in 2007.

As part of our 2017/18 Annual Review, which we published today, we spoke with Harpal about how things have changed in the world of cancer research during more than 15 years at the Charity. Here are his highlights.

Action against tobacco

“Making tobacco less attractive to kids has to be one of the biggest gifts we can give the next generation. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen big changes in public attitudes: it’s now far less socially acceptable, and we hope this means fewer young people will fall into such a potentially lethal addiction. But the job is far from done – we still have more than eight million smokers in Britain, and tens of thousands of children taking up the deadly addiction every year.”

The importance of spotting cancer early

“Politically speaking, we really put the importance of early diagnosis on the map. Back in 2003, almost no-one was talking about it. Now it’s right at the top of the agenda – and that’s something the Charity can be very proud of.”

Renewed focus on hard-to-treat cancers

“When we made lung cancer a high priority in our 2009 research strategy, it got quite a strong reaction. People thought it was too tough a challenge, they didn’t want to risk their careers on it. That’s changed – just look at lung and brain cancers now – there’s so much high-quality research going on.”

Improving the UK’s cancer services

“We’ve pushed hard to make sure that governments across the UK have robust plans to keep cancer services focused on what’s important. Over the years, these strategies have done a great job in improving our cancer services. It was a privilege to be asked to chair the Independent Taskforce which wrote the most recent cancer plan for England, and aims to transform people’s experiences of cancer care, as well as their chances of beating the disease.”

The Crick

“Raising £100 million in just four years to help fund the Francis Crick Institute was an incredible achievement for the Charity. The Institute’s state-of-the-art facilities and world-class scientific minds are already accelerating and deepening our understanding of cancer, ultimately improving the lives of patients across the world.”


Radiotherapy plays a vital role in curing cancer, but has often suffered from a lack of attention. Cancer Research UK has an incredible track record in radiotherapy research, but also – more recently – in pushing to modernise the UK’s radiotherapy infrastructure. The recent injection of cash from the Government to upgrade the nation’s radiotherapy equipment was fantastic news.”

Translating laboratory insights into patient benefit

“It’s hard to think of a single scientific advance that stands out, simply because there have been so many. What we know about cancer has advanced almost beyond recognition. And the thing that Cancer Research UK has been able to do is to make sure these advances are plugged into big national and international studies that make sure that they have the best possible chance of improving things for patients.”

The way people talk about cancer

“The language around cancer has completely changed. When I started here, it was something people barely mentioned. But now we discuss it much more openly. We celebrate people surviving it. I’m continually struck by this at Race for Life events. The notices on people’s backs used to be universally in memory of people who’d died. But when you go to a Race for Life today, they’re just as likely to be celebrating someone who’s survived.”


“The arrival in the early 2010s of a new generation of drugs that target a patient’s immune system – rather than their cancer – is one of the most important developments in my career. We’re now drawing together the UK’s immunology community to accelerate progress in this field, to develop drugs that work for more people, with even fewer side effects.”

Our growth in size and influence

“I’m leaving a charity that’s much larger, and funds so much more research. And along with that has come a big change in what we do. We’re as much a ‘convener’ as a funder now – we bring others together and we set the research agenda in a way that we just weren’t able to do when I started. When the Government decides to focus on something, we’re generally invited to sit at the table – and we’re listened to.”

Personal highlight

“When I try to think of a moment that sums up just how much progress we’ve made over the years, I keep coming back to April 2014, and being able to make the announcement that, for the first time in history, as many people now survived cancer long-term as died from it. That’s an incredible thing to be able to announce, a phenomenal achievement. Will I ever get to make a more profound announcement in my life? I doubt it.”

And a look to the future?

“I hope it will include something in the area of early detection. We’re getting towards a breakthrough that’ll allow us to detect cancers at an early stage – including some of the most aggressive, dangerous ones – and that’s going to have a huge impact on survival.”

Read more about the progress we’ve made in the last 12 months in our Annual Review 2017/18. We’ll also be publishing a selection of these stories over the next few weeks.