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Pioneering leukaemia researcher wins prestigious Royal Society award

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18 Jul 2017

Professor Mel Greaves, whose research Bloodwise has helped fund for over 30 years, has been awarded The Royal Society’s prestigious Royal Medal in recognition of his research, which has dramatically improved our understanding of childhood leukaemia.

Photo courtesy of The Institute of Cancer Research 

He pioneered methods to distinguish different types of leukaemia, allowing doctors to provide more tailored treatments to their patients – improving their chances of survival and reducing side effects.

He was also a pioneer in introducing the concept that cancers progress and become more malignant and drug resistant through a process equivalent to the evolution of species by natural selection.

Professor Greaves of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is following in the footsteps of legendary scientists such as Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday, who also won the Royal Medal.

Inspired by visits to an Italian hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital in London in the 1970s, where he met children with leukaemia, Professor Greaves became interested in cancer research. Very little was known about leukaemia at that time.

Professor Mel Greaves joined The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in 1984 to establish the UK's first leukaemia research centre (funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund, now known as Bloodwise). Over more than 30 years his team has made major advances to help us better understand the biology, natural history and possible causes of leukaemia, as well as stimulating new approaches to treatment.

In the late 1980s, Professor Greaves proposed that childhood acute lymphoid leukaemia (ALL) begins to develop in the womb before birth but needs a post-natal trigger derived from the impact of common infections – specifically in children who, in developed societies, had deficits in infection exposures in their first years.

The ‘delayed infection’ hypothesis presented by Professor Greaves was then supported by evidence from a meta-analysis of population studies that showed attending day care centres, in infancy, where infections could be acquired by social contact, reduces risk of ALL.

By studying identical twins with leukaemia and archived blood samples from new-born babies, in the 1990s, Professor Greaves’ lab at the ICR uncovered the mutational changes that trigger childhood leukaemia in utero.

In his early career Professor Greaves showed that ALL could be separated into four separate sub-types and that knowing the variety of ALL a child has could help predict how well they would do after treatment. This led to more tailored treatments for each child depending on the sub-type of ALL they have. Professor Greaves’ work continues to influence current treatment for children with leukaemia.

Following his earlier ground-breaking discoveries, Professor Greaves pioneered the application of evolutionary biology to cancer, working principally with childhood leukaemia but expanding on this work to apply the same Darwinian principles to cancer in general. He went on to establish the key role cancer stem cells play in how cancer evolves to become resistant to treatment.

In January 2014, Professor Greaves became the first Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the ICR.

Three Royal Medals are awarded each year. Two are awarded for the most important contributions to the advancement of ‘Natural Knowledge’ in the physical and biological sciences respectively. A third medal is awarded for distinguished contributions in the applied sciences.

Professor Greaves has received the latter award in recognition of the impact his research has had on the understanding of the biology of childhood leukaemia, its possible causes, differential diagnosis and effective treatment.

Professor Mel Greaves, Leader of the Biology of Childhood Leukaemia Team and Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “I am honoured and very pleasantly surprised to receive this prestigious medal and join such a stellar list of previous recipients. Childhood leukaemia was once considered to be universally fatal but thanks to the tremendous research progress made over the past 40 years, treatment is largely successful.

“When I made the decision in the mid-1970s to focus on childhood leukaemia, the primary motivation was the thought that these little patients, clinging tenaciously to life, could be my own children who were, at the time, the same age. I could never have imagined how my career would develop in the decades that followed but I feel very privileged to have been in a position to contribute towards the unpicking of this once mysterious and lethal disease in children.”

Alasdair Rankin, Director of Research at Bloodwise, said: “Funding research to help children with leukaemia was the reason this charity was first founded. When we first started funding research, only around one in 10 children with leukaemia survived. Today eight in 10 will survive in the long term. Professor Greaves has been a central figure in childhood leukaemia research for decades and his work has been an essential part of the progress that has been made. We are extremely proud to have helped fund Mel’s research for over 30 years now. We’re delighted that his work has been honoured in this way and that the generous donations of all our many supporters over the decades have played an essential part in this progress. It’s a fantastic example of the real difference that charitable research funding can make, but we won’t stop until everyone can live a life free of blood cancer.”