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Professor Mel Greaves wins Cancer Research UK Lifetime Achievement Award

Professor Mel Greaves from The Institute of Cancer Research, London, has been awarded the Cancer Research UK Lifetime Achievement Award for his work investigating the causes and clonal evolution of childhood leukaemia. 

The award was presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool, where Professor Greaves gave a keynote talk about his research on cancer evolution and leukaemia. 

Professor Mel Greaves has worked at the ICR for more than 30 years, joining in 1984 to establish the UK’s first ever Leukaemia Research Fund Centre. Since then, his team has made huge advances in the field of leukaemia research – unravelling the biology, natural history and possible causes of the disease. 

Groundbreaking work by his lab in the 1990s looking at identical twins and archived neonatal blood spots uncovered the key gene mutations that initiate leukaemia before birth. 

In 1988, he proposed that the development of a type of childhood leukaemia called acute lymphoid leukaemia or ALL, initiated before birth, requires a post-natal trigger and that this derives from the impact of common infections – specifically in children who had a deficit of infections in the first year of life.  This, ‘delayed infection’ hypothesis, is supported by a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies showing that attendance in day care centres in infancy reduces risk of ALL, presumably via the infections that are acquired via social contacts. 

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. 

His work on single-cell genetics in leukaemia established a now fundamental concept in cancer biology – that cancer stem cells are the ‘units of evolutionary selection’ in cancer, driving clonal diversity, metastasis and drug resistance. 

Professor Greaves has received numerous international awards and prizes throughout his career, and is also a Fellow of The Royal Society and the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. 

He began his training in zoology and immunology gaining his PhD from University College London. He became interested in cancer research after a tour of Great Ormond Street Hospital in London in the mid-1970s where he met children with leukaemia. At this time there was very little was known about the disease. 

He became the first Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the ICR in January 2014. 

Professor Greaves said: “I am delighted and honoured to receive this prestigious award from Cancer Research UK. Unpicking the complexities of biology, and cancer in particular, requires an interesting mix of creativity, persistence and teamwork. I am particularly pleased that the evolutionary principles I and my colleagues have applied to leukaemia have shed considerable light on its natural history and likely causes, and have proved broadly applicable to cancer in general. Childhood leukaemia was once a universally fatal disease but is now curable in most patients. Our research also highlights that it is potentially preventable.” 

Dr David Scott, Director of Research Funding at Cancer Research UK, said: “We’re delighted to announce Professor Greaves as winner of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. His research into children’s leukaemia has immeasurably advanced the amount we now know about the disease. 

“Professor Greaves and his research team changed how children with leukaemia are diagnosed and treated, allowing doctors to tailor treatment to the individual needs of a patient. He is a deserving winner and it’s very important to honour his lifetime commitment and dedication to the fight against leukaemia.”

Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of the ICR, said: “This award is richly deserved. Mel has been at the heart of the ICR’s intellectual life for three decades. The breakthroughs he made in his early career at the ICR propelled forward our understanding of childhood leukaemia and helped transform treatment of the disease.

“Mel has also had a huge influence over the way we think about and conduct our cancer research at the ICR and across the whole global research community, particularly his work championing the need to see cancer through an evolutionary lens. Mel’s pioneering work revealed that clonal evolution within cancers drives their progression and the development of drug resistance – and has opened up exciting new avenues for treatment.”

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