Scientists take cancer control

July 26, 1996

The United Kingdom's two main cancer research charities have both elected scientists to their helms for the first time.

The changes come as cancer research is undergoing a sea change. The new directors, with Pounds 116 million a year to spend between them, want to see an increase in applied research because a store of accumulated basic knowledge is ready to be turned into treatments.

Meanwhile, back in the laboratory, the need for funds to explore genetic discoveries means the new directors are talking about more collaboration with each other and with university scientists who work in subjects other than cancer.

Standing at the forefront of this research is Paul Nurse, who has been doing important work on the genes that control a yeast cell's division from one into two - highly relevant if you want to stop cancers proliferating. He will head the Imperial Cancer Research Fund from September, while remaining an active scientist, just as Sir Walter Bodmer did before him.

Gordon McVie moves up from research director of the Cancer Research Campaign to director, breaking a tradition of the charity being led by fundraisers, often ex-military men.

The charities' shops may be rivals on the high street but at their respective headquarters - Lincoln's Inn Fields and Regents Park, the directors sound remarkably concurrent. In fact, they are holding "strategic discussions". But ask if a merger is in the offing and the answer is an emphatic no.

A new world is dawning on the basic science side. For example, cancer treatments are saving many children but other youngsters are resistant to all known therapies.

Professor McVie says: "We are looking for another strategy. It is going to come from genetics." The CRC's strength has been in drug development. At the moment, he says, genetics is mainly cloning, which is "as boring as hell. But progress is being made. By the end of the millennium we will have cloned about 3,000 genes relevant to health". Then it will be exciting.

"By identifying genes," says Dr Nurse, "it will be possible to take a genetic fingerprint of a tumour to say 'this tumour is altered in the following five genes'."

This will help to tailor treatment, as doctors will know from the defects which treatment is going to be most effective. More excitingly it could lead to a shift away from present treatments, which are still of the "cut and burn" variety, says Dr Nurse. Instead, "if we could interfere in the function or action of these genes we may be able to reverse the change. We have the tools. We can now think about designing treatments".

The trouble is this work will need rooms full of new equipment. Professor McVie says: "The resource implication of developing the proteins and products from these genes are going to be phenomenal."

Researchers need crystallography equipment for piecing together the structure of the proteins; nuclear magnetic resonance equipment; machines to manufacture the promising proteins; and computers.

Such investment requires sharing the costs. "That's why the ICRF and ourselves are going to come together," says Professor McVie. Also, he envisages increased collaboration with non-cancer scientists, because the work has shifted into basic genetics. The answers may come from scientists tackling cystic fibrosis or cardio-vascular disease, for example.

Another way of tackling costs is by mixed funding. The ICRF employs scientists to work in its own units, a major one at Lincoln's Inn Fields and others, many of which are in universities or hospitals. Dr Nurse, former professor of molecular biology at Oxford, wants to see more professorships funded jointly by the ICRF and a university.

The ICRF has discovered that if its name and finance are associated with a project it can also attract funding from elsewhere. "Our money can then go further," says Dr Nurse. "We can support more innovative, risky work. More traditional forms of funding are going to be more conservative by nature."

He seems resigned to the ICRF being a back-door source of infrastructure money for universities. He admits to leaving the university system because of its bureacracy, for ICRF heaven where he could spend his whole time in research.

The other shift in thinking has arisen because of the need to apply the results of discoveries made over the past 20 years.

At the ICRF, whose strength has always been its basic science, Dr Nurse says: "Our understanding of the problem is now beginning to improve to a level that one can imagine ways in which it might be translatable into better clinical practice. We have a responsibility to be thinking about it. I see that as one of my major tasks. We have good basic labs and good clinicians. The interesting problem is to get the best working relationship between these two groups of people who are often culturally different.

"Scientists tend to be driven by curiosity. That's only right. But often, particularly when they get a little older, they get interested in the application of that. We are looking to establish mixtures of clinicians working on the same problems."

This year the charity has set aside Pounds 100,000 to fund projects proposed jointly by doctors and scientists.

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