Transfer stuns Bodmer

August 25, 1995

The retiring director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund was 'amazed and astonished' by the recent fate of the OST. He explains why to Kam Patel. Sir Walter Bodmer, the leading geneticist and director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, has fiercely criticised the recent swallowing-up of the Office of Science and Technology by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Sir Walter said he was "amazed and astonished" by the transfer. "It was handled very badly. I am led to believe that even senior scientists in the Government did not know about it before it happened, which I think is incredible. I cannot believe it was not done for political reasons," he said.

The transfer undermines the key role science and technology play in driving the economy, he said. "I find it quite extraordinary that something that is so important is to be handled by a junior minister. I don't care who the junior minister is, it is just wrong."

Sir Walter also derided the Pounds 100,000 prize announced by science minister Ian Taylor recently for excellence in collaborative links between industry and university researchers. "How much do they think it costs to run just one laboratory at the ICRF? What is an award of Pounds 100,000 going to do for science and engineering in this country? It's a joke."

Sir Walter recently announced his retirement as director-general of the ICRF next August to become principal of Hertford College, Oxford. He has been with the fund since 1979, first as director of research and then, from 1991, as director-general, a post that combines responsibility for ICRF's research strategy, finance and administration.

The ICRF is in the unusual position of being both a large medical research charity and a fund-raising charity. And in contrast to many other charities, it is a scientific institution managed by people who know something about the area in which the money is being applied, a state of affairs Sir Walter champions strongly.

The fund was set up in 1902, when scientists did not really know what cancer was. In recent decades molecular biology has led to an "absolutely major revolution" in the understanding of the fundamentals of the disease, pervading virtually everything researchers do in the field.

But Sir Walter says that the really big challenge for institutions such as the ICRF lies in translating laboratory developments into clinical effectiveness.

"In the clinic the changes have not been as dramatic as in the laboratory - unfortunately. You still have the major methods of treatment - radiotherapy, surgery and now chemotherapy -which are very successful in some tumours but unfortunately not the common ones."

When he first joined the ICRF, there were very few areas of research that promised to lead to a new approach to treatment, and possibly a cure. "Now I think the situation is completely different. There are almost too many different approaches, approaches that are quite plausible. The real task - and this is true for medical research in general - is to pick out the ones that are most likely to yield positive results from a plethora of possibilities."

His wife, Julia Bodmer, head of the ICRF's Tissue Antigen Laboratory in London, is also retiring from the fund next year. The two are planning to continue with their research at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, in order to take advantage of the institute's expertise in developing immunotherapy approaches to the treatment of cancer.

A major focus of Sir Walter's activities will continue to be the basic genetics of cancer - which involves studying families with cancer. Other work will deal with multifactorial susceptibility to cancer and the development of genetics-based methods for the early detection of the disease.

In collaboration with Robin McKie, The Observer's science correspondent, Sir Walter has just published The Book of Man. It is a widely acclaimed account of biology at its most modern and the threats and opportunities posed by the unravelling, by the end of the century, of the human genetic code through the Human Genome Project.

As past president of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and of the Human Genome Organisation, which helps to foster collaboration between countries in the Human Genome Project, Sir Walter is keenly aware of the ethical sensitivities relating to genetics and its use, for example, in screening people for diseases.

He believes that the potential for the beneficial application of the Genome Project is "absolutely outstanding". He argues: "It is not just areas such as genetic susceptibility to diseases that I am thinking of here. There are tremendous opportunities also for developing new drugs that come from discovering new genes and from chemical developments. The opportunities are enormous and the challenge, again, will be to identify the most promising routes to pursue."

All this, however, has to be set alongside the problems that are raised by the rapid increase in genetic knowledge. For Sir Walter, the most important areas of concern relate to how genetic information about an individual's susceptibility to disease is handled.

"Individuals will have to be counselled. This is not new, but there is going to be a greater and greater need for it and we have got to think about how to handle it properly."

To illustrate the problems of counselling, Sir Walter highlights an ICRF study of a group of patients under the age of 45 who have colon cancer, one of his areas of expertise.

Researchers are interested in knowing what proportion of the patients have an inherited susceptibility to the disease. As Sir Walter explains, telling someone that they have cancer is bad enough but to inform the person that it may be an inherited susceptibility - that it may be present in their brothers and sisters and their children - is even more traumatic.

The exploitation by industry of new genetic testing techniques has also begun to cause problems. Sir Walter understands that some firms in the United States have even started selling kits for personal genetic testing.

"In principle it is dangerous but that is not to say you cannot have a company selling testing procedures. The crucial point is that their use has to be carefully regulated to fit in with patterns of medical care so that someone cannot just buy a test off the shelf, do it and then not know what to do if it gives a certain result. Counselling and public understanding of risk are central to this whole issue."

For Sir Walter there is a simple cardinal rule that should govern all genetic screening or testing: "You do not test people - except for research purposes - unless you can provide benefits. I do not understand why that is not fully appreciated.

"There is no case for my doing a test on a group of people unless I can do something with it. It is only during the research phase that you can say to the subjects, look, it may be of no benefit to you but in the long term it could be of considerable help."

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