Melvyn (Mel) Greaves is working to unravel the causes of childhood leukaemia by examining the genetic influences and biological pathways that lead to the disease.
Professor Greaves has worked at the ICR since 1984, when he joined to establish the UK’s first Leukaemia Research Fund Centre (for Cell and Molecular Biology). Earlier in his career, Professor Greaves pioneered immunological methods to differentiate between types of leukaemia, which improved understanding of the disease and allowed treatments to be better tailored to patients.
Professor Greaves and his team made a major discovery at the ICR in the 1990s when studies on identical twins and neonatal blood spots identified mutations that initiated leukaemia before birth. He has been trying to work out what triggers the clinical emergence of leukaemia when children are between two and five years old, and has accumulated evidence that incriminates an abnormal immune response to infection and the cytokine molecule TGF beta.
Professor Greaves says a major goal is to confirm the role that common childhood infections play in the development of leukaemia. He is looking for more evidence that children exposed to infections as babies develop a normal immune response and receive some protection against leukaemia, while children who are not exposed until later in life – generally those from affluent societies - are at higher risk. Inherited susceptibility also plays a role, and Professor Greaves is studying this in collaboration with the ICR’s Section of Genetics. Evolutionary principles provide a key framework for these studies.
Professor Greaves has a broad educational background, initially training in zoology and immunology in the sixties at University College in London and Stockholm. He was drawn into cancer research in the mid-1970s when, as a young father, he visited a cancer ward at a London hospital and met children stricken with leukaemia. At the time, little was known about the disease, and Professor Greaves began a lifelong study – initially at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute) - into its biology in the hope of improving patient diagnosis, treatment options and ultimately prevention.
His research at the ICR has been recognised by many national and international awards including the José Carreras Award, the British Society for Haematology Gold Medal and the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine. Professor Greaves is an Honorary Member of the Royal College of Physicians, a Fellow of the United Kingdom Academy of Medical Sciences and was elected to The Royal Society in 2003.
Outside leukaemia research, Professor Greaves has broad and eclectic interests in evolutionary biology, cancer and medicine, and wrote the popular science book Cancer: The Evolutionary Legacy (Oxford University Press), which has been translated into five foreign languages and Braille. His latest book is White Blood: Personal Journeys with Childhood Leukaemia (World Scientific). Professor Greaves enjoys classical music, opera, the theatre, many sports (all too passively now) and being a grandfather.
He is also a founding author of The Darwin Cancer Blog, a forum for discussion of how an evolutionary perspective is changing thinking about cancer.