Professor Sir 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.
He 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.
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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.
According to Professor Greaves, 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.
With a broad educational background, Professor Greaves 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 a Fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research. He was elected to The Royal Society in 2003. In 2015 Professor Greaves received the Cancer Research UK Lifetime Achievement Award for Cancer Research.
In 2017 Professor Greaves was awarded the prestigious Royal Medal from The Royal Society in recognition of his research, which dramatically improved our understanding of childhood leukaemia. He was honoured in the 2019 New Year Honours with a knighthood for services to children’s leukaemia research.
In 2014 Professor Greaves founded the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the ICR. The centre is focussed on providing a new, evolutionary perspective on cancer risk, cancer clone development and drug resistance. He stepped down as Director in April 2020.
Mel is a strong supporter of science communication to the wider public. He initiated the ICR Science Writing Prize ten years ago (now named the Mel Greaves Science Writing Prize). He is the founding editor of the ICR blog ‘The Bigger Picture’. In 2015 he set up The Darwin Cancer Blog (previously hosted by Nature Publishing Group on the British Journal of Cancer site until May 2018) which aims to provide a forum for the discussion of how an evolutionary perspective is changing thinking about cancer.
He is the author of two popular science books: ‘Cancer. The Evolutionary Legacy’ (2000) translated into five languages and Braille, and ‘White Blood. Personal Journeys with Childhood Leukaemia’. In 2017 he completed a science book for teenagers (principally his own grandchildren): ‘The Making of You: The Most Incredible Journey, Ever’. Professor Greaves enjoys classical music, opera, the theatre, many sports (all too passively now) and being a grandfather.
After five decades of scientific research and publishing, Mel still enjoys the illusion that his best idea and best paper is his next one.