Stephen Jackson hopes that the prestigious prize he has won for translating his pioneering work on repairing DNA damage into treatments for breast and ovarian cancer will give a boost to blue-skies research.
Last month, the Frederick James Quick professor of biology at the University of Cambridge was named the inaugural recipient of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Innovator of the Year Award at a ceremony in London.
The £10,000 prize was created to recognise bioscientists whose research has benefited the public at large. The six other finalists demonstrated the broad strength of the discipline, Professor Jackson said. And although he held up the award as proof that biosciences research can successfully be translated into clinical use, he added that he hoped the recognition would encourage politicians and the media to spend more time promoting the value of blue-skies academic work.
Professor Jackson began his career as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds before moving to Imperial College London to study for a PhD in molecular genetics. He finished the doctorate at the University of Edinburgh after his research was relocated, and then went to the US to do postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1991, he moved to Cambridge, where he remains 18 years later as a professor and head of the Cancer Research UK Laboratories.
He is best known for his work with KuDOS Pharmaceuticals, a research and development company that he founded to improve cancer treatments. It was set up in 1997 with the backing of Cancer Research UK (then the Cancer Research Campaign).
When more funding was needed, Professor Jackson was forced to take on a new role and negotiate with venture capitalists, despite having no experience in business.
The stress of being both an academic and a businessman took him "close to breaking point" several times. "As an academic, you work for your different goals, you look to discover something interesting. You set up a question to try to answer something. Companies, on the other hand, are more focused on products; they are much more linear."
Despite the pressure, he learnt to sell his research to a business audience. Eighteen months after he began his search, he found a backer who provided £5 million to set up new premises for KuDOS. In 2005, the firm was sold to pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca for about $210 million (£142 million). Professor Jackson's lab still has close ties to the company, but is now independent.