UK cancer charity in drive to net US talent

December 23, 2005

The race is on to recruit top cancer researchers from America as Britain's biggest cancer charity dramatically ramps up its research funding.

Cancer Research UK, the principal funder of cancer research in this country, confirmed this week that it would increase its budget by 50 per cent, up to £300 million, within five years.

The cash will provide a boost to institutions that are competing to take centre stage as the UK's main focus shifts towards clinical trials and so-called translational cancer research. Universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Queen's Belfast and King's College London have all made major new appointments in the cancer field - including a number of big-name clinical scientists from the US.

CRUK has agreed to give universities additional funding to tempt research leaders from overseas in the run-up to the 2008 research assessment exercise.

Alex Markham, chief executive of CRUK, said: "The charity feels that if it is going to increase spending by 50 per cent, we need to grow the pool of top-class scientists. We don't mind where they come from, but the US is a prime source."

He added: "As a ballpark figure, we are looking to provide half a million [pounds] to ease the recruitment process for each individual. We don't want to hire top-quality people and then have them go into an 18-month interregnum while they try to build up a lab and a funding base."

Cambridge is thrusting itself to the forefront of the field. From next year, it will host CRUK's fourth major institute, which will work closely with the 1,000-bed university hospital and regional cancer centre.

CRUK has appointed Bruce Ponder, a high-profile Cambridge breast cancer researcher, to head the centre, which will employ more than 300 scientists, including 20 new research group leaders. Professor Ponder said: "I've made half the appointments, which means I have been out for dinner every night since I can remember."

He confirmed that negotiations were continuing with four top scientists from major labs in the US. But he added: "One thing I will say is that it is very difficult wherever you are in the world to get very good people who can work at the interface between the lab and the clinic. We haven't really been training people to do clinical research."

Cambridge faces stiff competition from across the UK.

Oxford has succeeded in recruiting Gilles McKenna and Ruth Muschel, a husband and wife team from the US, to direct its new radiation oncology and biology group, which is sponsored by the CRUK and the Medical Research Council.

Professor McKenna was chair of the department of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Professor Muschel was director of cancer research at America's biggest cancer hospital for children, in Philadelphia. They are bringing with them a team that includes members from the US, Canada, Germany and the UK. It will eventually comprise 160 scientists.

Professor McKenna said: "In the end, we were persuaded to come because of the amount of resources that CRUK and the MRC were prepared to put into this."

Queen's Belfast, which has recruited several big US cancer players in the past five years, is pushing ahead with plans to launch a £25 million cancer research centre in spring 2007. It will be adjacent to a clinical cancer centre that will open at the city hospital next year.

Paddy Johnson, who will direct the centre, confirmed that he had managed to tempt back Dennis McCance, a world-renowned Irish cancer expert, after ten years in the US.

Professor McCance, who will not leave his position of professor of microbiology, immunology and oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center until May, said: "I am coming because I want a challenge.

Paddy has done a great job in getting the bricks and mortar up, but I hope to be able to help recruit some new, exciting people to fill the building."

Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University, said that cancer research would be one of two fields that the newly merged institution would champion most aggressively.

She said: "We will be looking at an investment of well over £50 million with a new cancer centre, about ten big appointments and a number of junior ones. We are starting to talk to people about moving here. The US is a big focus."

King's is striving to set itself up as Britain's answer to the University of Texas's renowned M. D. Anderson Cancer Centre. The London college is close to signing its fourth new cancer chair appointment, having poached Arnie Purushotham from the Cambridge Breast Unit and Frank Nestle from Zurich University.

Robert Lechler, the college's vice-president for health, said: "You can't aspire to be a major biomedical research institution if you do not have a major presence in cancer research. It will become one of the major themes of our activity."

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