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Scientist Recognised with Cancer Charity’s Highest Honour



Friday 2 December 2011




Professor Mel Greaves from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) has become the first scientist honoured with a leading blood cancer charity’s highest award.


Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research selected Professor Greaves to receive a lifetime achievement award (Certificate of Merit) in recognition of his “outstanding service” to the charity.


The charity’s trustees singled out Professor Greaves’ internationally renowned research into the origins of childhood leukaemia, and in particular his pioneering studies in twins that deciphered the sequence, timing and complexity of genetic mutations in childhood leukaemia.


“I am delighted and honoured that my team’s research over many years at The Institute of Cancer Research has been recognised in this way.  It has been very rewarding and exciting to have been part of the worldwide effort that has changed the landscape of both the biology and treatment of childhood leukaemia,” Professor Greaves says.


“There is still work to be done: a minority of children still fare badly and the treatment, albeit usually successful, can carry considerable side-effects.  We have evidence that the development of ALL in susceptible individuals is trigged by infection. If we could establish this unambiguously, then prevention, perhaps by vaccination in infancy, could become an achievable objective.”


Professor Greaves discovered that pre-cancerous stem cells can arise from an abnormal fusion of two genes - TEL (ETV6) and AML1 (RUNX1) - in the developing foetus during the mother's pregnancy.


The pre-leukaemic stem cells grow in the bone marrow as a silent time bomb that can stay in the body for up to 15 years, but require other triggers and genetic events to convert into the most common form of childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).


Evidence suggests that the initial mutation may be present in as many as one in 100 newborns, but only about one in 100 of those children with the mutation then go on to develop leukaemia.


His team also established that these cancer stem cells continue to evolve in a Darwinian fashion by ongoing genetic variation and natural selection. The mutational complexity of the stem cells driving the disease helps explain why advanced cancers are notoriously resistant to treatment.


Professor Greaves’ later work has shed further light on the events necessary for leukaemia to evolve into malignant disease, including the involvement of a molecule called TGF. TGF is released in the body as a normal response to infection, so the finding also provided the first experimental evidence - endorsing the team’s epidemiological observations - that common childhood infection may be critically involved in triggering the clinical emergence of leukaemia.

Professor Greaves received the award at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research’s Annual Grantholders' Day on November 9 2011.


Media Contact: ICR Science Communications Manager Jane Bunce on 0207 153 5106 or after hours 077217 47900


Notes to editors:

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

  • The ICR is Europe’s leading cancer research centre
  • The ICR has been ranked the UK’s top academic research centre, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise
  • The ICR works closely with partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to ensure patients immediately benefit from new research. Together the two organisations form the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe
  • The ICR has charitable status and relies on voluntary income
  • As a college of the University of London, the ICR also provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction
  • Over its 100-year history, the ICR’s achievements include identifying the potential link between smoking and lung cancer which was subsequently confirmed, discovering that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer and isolating more cancer-related genes than any other organisation in the world
  • The ICR is home to the world’s leading academic cancer drug development team. Several important anti-cancer drugs used worldwide were synthesised at the ICR and it has discovered an average of two preclinical candidates each year over the past five years.

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Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research

Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research is the only UK charity solely dedicated to research into blood cancers, including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. These cancers are diagnosed in around 28,500 children, teenagers and adults in the UK every year. As we receive no government funding and rely entirely on voluntary support, we need to raise £120 million in the next five years to continue our life-saving research. Further information, including patient information booklets, is available from or on 020 7405 0101.

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