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A visionary research leader, ally and mentor - Professor Paul Workman steps down as CEO

As Professor Paul Workman steps down as Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, colleagues shared memories and reflections on his impact.

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Image: Professor Paul Workman speaking at an event.

Professor Workman joined the ICR in 1997 as Director of the Cancer Therapeutics Unit and has led the ICR as President and CEO since 2014.

Under his leadership over the last seven years, the ICR has achieved many scientific and organisational successes. And throughout his career, he has had a lasting impact on the ICR and beyond.

As we celebrate these achievements, we also want to share some of the stories from behind the scenes, which illustrate the key role Professor Workman has played in so many people’s working lives.

Here, colleagues and collaborators, share their reflections on Professor Workman’s impact in their own words.

A surprise visitor returns

Alan Cumber, Deputy Director, Facilities Services, recalled first meeting Professor Workman in the 1970s long before they worked together at the ICR decades later.

“I first met Paul in the mid-1970s. I was a student working in the chemistry laboratories which were then located in the Chester Beatty Laboratories. Paul was a student at Leeds and he came to our lab to work with my supervisor for a short period. I remember he used a ‘specialist’ item of equipment in the professor’s office to which I usually had restricted access -- equipment was not as freely available in those days! As a result I treated Paul with great suspicion and checked the equipment each day after he had left!

“Much later after Paul joined the ICR we worked together more closely on Health, Safety & Welfare issues. Paul was chair of the ICR Health Safety & Environment Committee and he interviewed me when I became Head of HSE. Paul always took the safety and welfare of staff extremely seriously and we both became involved in our different functions in various aspects of equality, diversity and welfare. In my opinion, Paul’s time as CEO has seen the most concentrated improvements in this area that I can recall.

“Paul was unwavering in his opposition to bullying and I remember his enthusiastic championing of mental health issues that resulted in us sharing a platform when the ‘Black Dog’ came to ICR. The large model of a black dog was sponsored by the mental health charity Sane, as part of a campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues.”

Exciting times!

Professor Udai Banerji, Deputy Director, Drug Development Unit at the ICR and The Royal Marsden, said:

“I have been fortunate to work with Paul Workman in his various different roles in the ICR over the last two decades. My earliest interaction was when I was doing my PhD as a clinical fellow in the Cancer Therapeutics Unit in 2000 during his early days as Director of the CTU.

“It is hard to explain the excitement of not just the scientific rationale, but the tantalising yet unknown potential clinical benefit felt about EGFR and PI3K inhibitors that Paul's teams discovered in the early days, to the current generation of physicians who have grown up with targeted therapies and take their efficacy for granted. Paul’s vision grew the CTU to be the most successful academic drug discovery unit in the world and his contribution to the framing of the Pharmacological Audit Trail has had a lasting impact on translation of drugs from the laboratory to the clinic.

"On a personal note, Paul’s drive to change the lives of cancer patients is evident to those who know him, be it email exchanges at 5am or bumping into him in the car park close to midnight when on call at The Royal Marsden hospital during my PhD. To me, two favourite PW quotes that encapsulate his influence on generations of drug developers are ‘no biomarker, no drug’ and ‘exciting times!’”

An amazing legacy

Dr Olivia Rossanese, Interim Director of the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit and Interim Head of the Division of Cancer Therapeutics, said:

“What an amazing legacy Paul leaves to the world of cancer drug discovery! Through the founding and successful leadership of the Cancer Therapeutics Unit, he provided the blueprints for how academia can play a critical role in oncology drug discovery and translational science. He has demonstrated how academic institutes can embrace risk and patient benefits as drivers to fill gaps in the drug discovery ecosystem – and how this approach can actually promote successful partnerships with industry. Importantly, through his championing of the Pharmacological Audit Trail and the responsible use of chemical probes, he has educated the community and raised the standards for preclinical and clinical implementation of targeted and molecular therapeutics. His vision for the future of cancer therapeutics – that we must tackle drug resistance – is embodied by the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, where we will continue to pursue innovative drug science to discover new cancer medicines.”

An excellent ally

Naa-Anyima Boateng, Former Co-Chair of the ICR and The Royal Marsden’s Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage (REACH) Forum reflected:

“It has been an absolute pleasure working with Paul Workman on the Race Equality: Beyond the Statements action plan. Paul was an excellent ally to the REACH Forum, and he was always open to listening to our issues and working to put actions in place to address them. Paul's statement following the murder of George Floyd and his commitment to tackle inequalities at the ICR was an example of senior leadership needing to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk to ensure that equality and diversity are promoted within the ICR.”

The REACH Forum said:

“The REACH Forum wants to thank Paul Workman for all the work and dedication he has personally invested in championing race equality within the ICR. In particular, in establishing the Race Equality: Beyond the statements action plan to deliver on the initial six commitments that Paul set out to promote racial diversity and inclusion across all levels within the ICR. Since then, thanks to Paul’s leadership and together with all parties involved, the ICR has made significant progress. There is still a long road ahead and we are looking forward to working with our incoming CEO to maintain the momentum and to deliver and advance on the commitments set out by Paul.”

Dedicated cancer research leader

Dame Cally Palmer, Chief Executive of The Royal Marsden, said:

“I’d like to thank Paul for his outstanding work over many years at the ICR, his dedication to finding new and improved ways to treat cancer and for maintaining such a strong relationship with The Royal Marsden.”

Professor Charlie Swanton, Chief Clinician at Cancer Research UK and Senior Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute, said:

“Paul has contributed in so many ways to advance cancer research over 40 years. From his industry experience through to his academic cancer therapeutics leadership, and his Chief Executive role at the ICR, Paul has dedicated his working life to advancing patient outcomes, developing and delivering targeted molecules into clinical trials and supporting junior careers through his leadership roles at the ICR, many of whom are now successful independent principal investigators across the globe. It has been a real pleasure to work with Paul both as a friend and a colleague; lively and enthusiastic with boundless energy and bright ideas, his presence in all aspects of UK cancer research will be missed by us all.”

Transforming patients’ lives

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“Over the past seven years, as Chief Executive at The Institute of Cancer Research, and before that as Director of the Cancer Therapeutics Unit, Paul has championed the development of drugs that have already benefitted many people affected by breast cancer and that will continue to help treat those diagnosed with this devastating disease in the future.

“It’s been a huge privilege to work with Paul through our long-standing relationship with the ICR, including around the world-class bench to bedside breast cancer research taking place at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre. What we’ve achieved through collaboration during Paul’s time is a critical foundation from which we’re now working to accelerate progress in breast cancer research, at a time when the impacts of the pandemic make this more needed than ever. 

“I’d like to thank Paul wholeheartedly for his unwavering support, clarity of purpose and commitment to delivering progress through our partnership that has brought hope for the future to people affected by breast cancer, and to wish him all the best for the future.”

The drug hunter

Dr Andree Blaukat, Senior Vice President, Translational Innovation Platform Oncology & Immuno-Oncology at Merck Healthcare, said:

“When I first met Paul back in 2007 he was director of the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit at the ICR. From day one, it was clear to me that Paul and I share the same philosophy about drug discovery – a philosophy which Paul and his colleagues so elegantly described in their publications about the pharmacological audit trail. The foundation of this mindset is to follow the science and since this is also our guiding principle here at Merck Healthcare, we have been able to set up and execute multiple successful collaborative projects between the ICR and Merck over the years.

“Paul has been instrumental in the success of these collaboration projects, not only because he has always been able to stay close to the projects scientifically, but also because of his can-do attitude and his pragmatism. He would go out of his way to make sure our collaboration teams have what they need to drive the projects forward as best as possible and to find solutions if things were getting tricky.

“It is very rare to see an accomplished and academic drug discovery leader with such strategic foresight who has at the same time always stayed very close to the science.

“It is often said that academic set-ups lack the know-how and critical mass to discover and develop novel targeted drugs that make it to patients. Paul has proven this wrong, over and over again.

“A drug hunter by calling, a diligent scientist by nature and a football fan by passion: go see Paul Workman. Oh, and he is a great guy as well.”


Paul Workman Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust Udai Banerji Breast Cancer Now Cancer Research UK careers drug discovery Olivia Rossanese Equality and Diversity business and innovation Beyond the Statements
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