Professor Malcolm Stevens: In the 1970s I was in my physical and mental prime. I was a senior academic at Aston University and was fortunate enough to have some very clever associates that gathered at that unfashionable university – Dr John Hickman, Andy Gescher, Mike Tisdale – and followed our own intuitions and instincts.
We didn’t have any particular idea where we were going – it was unfettered interesting research that eventually led to something very worthwhile. But we didn’t know what that ‘worthwhile’ was going to be when we gathered at Aston in the 1970s.
There was no particular moment in time when temozolomide was ‘discovered’ – there was work that I did as a PhD student, serving my apprenticeship, and my early days as a lecturer up in Edinburgh where we investigated the properties of molecules that were rich in nitrogen.
That was the secret of our ultimate success – making compounds with multiple nitrogen atoms. They tend to be rather easy to make, which is a good thing, and they have interesting properties from a chemical perspective, and from a biological perspective.
We realised when we’d made the family of compounds that eventually became temozolomide that they were likely to have some exciting biological properties. Up to that time, all the compounds we’d made were biologically inert, and it was only around that time – the early 1980s – when we were making interesting molecules.
And because of funding from The Cancer Research Campaign (CRC, as Cancer Research UK was then), we had the ability to test the compounds. We were able to do the synthetic chemistry, we were able to do the toxicology work, we were able to manufacture formulations of drug without any legalistic impediment to doing that.
When we discovered temozolomide, we weren’t supported by any major pharmaceutical companies, so the obvious place to go to was the CRC’s phase 1 committee. They didn’t have many potential drugs on their books at that time, so they decided to fund the clinical trials on temozolomide.
I don’t think there was ever a ‘eureka’ hats-in-the-air moment, but I guess one half expected that something was going to work. After all, we were scientists, we think that we’ve done our side of the bargain – the preclinical work – and why should we be surprised if something beneficial happens in the clinic?
Voiceover: Temozolomide is now used to treat many thousands of patients around the world with glioblastoma. But its development wouldn’t have been possible without Cancer Research UK, or our supporters.
One’s always conscious of the fact that, as somebody who ran a group funded by the CRC and then Cancer Research UK, that the money that you’re spending has been collected by people running whist drives and flag days out in every village in the country. So one is responsible for making sure that every penny you spend is wisely spent.