I joined a group of leading figures from around the world in leukaemia research recently as they gathered at the Royal Society to celebrate Professor Sir Mel Greaves’ outstanding contributions to the field, and his recent knighthood.
Throughout the day, speakers gave talks on some of the giants of leukaemia research – Sidney Farber, John Goldman and Donald Metcalf to name a few.
Each scientist who spoke emphasised Sir Mel’s impact on the field and told touching personal stories about how he inspired their own scientific careers.
Professor Mel Greaves was knighted in 2018, for his groundbreaking work to understand the hidden natural history and causes of childhood leukaemia during a 35-year career at The Institute of Cancer Research, London.
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'I would not be a scientist if it were not for Mel'
Dr Elli Papaemmanuil, who is currently at The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, spoke about how fortunate she felt to have crossed paths with Professor Greaves during her time at the ICR. “I would not be a scientist if it were not for Mel,” she said, with clear enthusiasm for both Mel’s mentorship and the scientific findings she presented.
Dr Papaemmanuil recalled that on a recent visit to her lab, Mel spent an hour with each of the scientists she supervises, taking the time to work through problems with them and sharing his expertise generously.
Describing her work, she explained the causes of leukaemia, with complex interplay between genetic mutations and chromosomal translocations – a change in which large chunks of two chromosomes get swapped over which can cause disease.
She recounted how she emailed Mel one Christmas, excited by her findings and asking for some input, and he politely told her that as it was the holiday season, she should go home and be with her family. This commitment to balancing a scientific career with family was echoed throughout the day, with Mel hailed as a mentor who encouraged a good work-life balance in combination to a devotion to his work.
She finished up by thanking Mel for the “phenomenal impact” he has had in the field and on individual scientists, and it was clear from the rapturous applause in the room that her words struck a chord with many in attendance.
90% cure rate for acute lymphocytic leukaemia
Running through all of the talks was a thread of scientific dedication from these researchers – the word ‘obsession’ was used by numerous speakers to describe the fervent nature of the devotion these scientists give to the cause of leukaemia.
Why do children get leukaemia? Why does one child of a set of identical twins develop the disease while the other twin – an exact genetic copy – escape unscathed?
Delving into these questions is what led these international researchers to the top, and their achievements over the last 60 years have been truly remarkable.
Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL) was once 100 per cent lethal, and now has a 90 per cent cure rate. More is understood about the genetics of leukaemia than ever before, and many of the scientists spoke about standing on the shoulders of giants.
Our research into childhood leukaemia has had an enormous impact on the lives of children with cancer all across the world. With your support today, we can make ALL a disease of the past.
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'Mel set us off on this pathway of examining evolution'
John E Dick, who is based at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, spoke of a sabbatical he took in Mel’s lab early on his career, and how working there set him off down a path of scientific questions he had not previously considered.
Thinking about the nature of stem cells he wondered why the fate of some of these cells is to become endlessly proliferating cancer cells, and why some remain healthy.
This led him to discover that while some people have genetic changes which are precursors to leukaemia, they don’t go on to develop the disease – more changes are necessary to kick off the reactions that cause leukaemia.
He concluded with the strong statement that we “cannot divorce stem cell biology from evolution, and that’s a legacy Mel has given us all”.
'The best idea in science, ever'
Mel began his own talk at the end of the day with a reference to Charles Darwin, who he argued came up with the “best idea in science, ever” with his theory of evolution by natural selection. Mel’s enthusiasm for science was palpable by all in the room and is positively infectious.
His lecture, entitled the Li Chong Chan lecture, was named in honour of a former researcher who worked with Mel. Li Chong Chan was a Clinical Fellow and PhD student in Mel’s laboratory at the ICR (1984–87).
Mel praised the young PhD students, post-docs, and junior scientists who he emphasised are of equal importance as the prestigious scientists who might have come before them.
He emphasised a point made by many researchers throughout the day: little advancement in science comes from a truly original “eureka moment” of totally original thought. We are always building on the work of the scientists who came before is.
Professor Greaves then led the audience through some of the highlights of his career, touching on the importance of identical twins in his research and explaining that many cancers arise as a result of a mismatch between modern lifestyles and the way human beings have evolved.
The body has been crafted by the process of evolution to withstand all sorts of stresses, but the modern world presents a unique set of challenges, many of which let cancerous cells flourish and develop into disease.
Throughout September, The Institute of Cancer Research is recognising Childhood Cancer Awareness Month with news stories, videos and blog posts that highlight our latest efforts to improve the lives of children with cancer.
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'I’m an optimist'
One of the most promising avenues of research Professor Greaves feels will make an impact on cancer prevention in future is a set of treatments targeting the microbiome – the mix of good bacteria which live in and on the human body, mostly in the gut.
The development of a healthy gut microbiome starts early in life. This microbiome helps protect us against infections, aid in proper digestion, and also helps to prime the immune system, which in turn affects the likelihood of developing leukaemia.
Professor Greaves' excitement about this avenue of research is clear, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down his research. Recognising that his ideas are audacious, he said “I’m an optimist. Unless you couple being audacious with being an optimist, there’s no point.”
After Mel’s lecture, the day finished up with some closing remarks from the ICR’s Chief Executive Professor Paul Workman, who thanked everyone for attending and summed up the day by saying of Mel, “Not only is he a great scientist, he’s just a great human being”.
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