It seems like no time at all since Terry came to see me for the first time in my laboratory at York University.  He asked me what I would do if he gave me a pound towards cancer research.  He actually asked me just how much of the £1 I would spend directly on my research.  The answer was simple…. we spend every penny of every pound raised by Charity Soul directly on research.  The first meeting was just over 5 years ago, and in that time your efforts and generosity have contributed a huge £70,000 towards my research on cancer stem cells, here at York University.

As I have said many times on this website, the salaries and research materials you support allowing these clever people to try out new things which increase our understanding of the complex disease that cancer has turned out to be.  This year we had six really bright young students (everyone is young compared to me) working either on testing new drugs, or snipping out the genes which keep cells normal – trying to actually cause cancers.

But more of this later.  What on earth does my title mean? 

As some of you may know, this time last year I was in hospital, the first of 3 such visits.  AND it was my prostate which was the problem!  Having researched prostate cancer for more than 30 years this was probably inevitable.  It did not make it any easier for the doctors and nurses who looked after me I know, but the good news was that like many other men with a prostate problem, they couldn’t find any cancer.  However, my surgery and the 2 subsequent bouts of post-operative sepsis (the scariest thing I ever encountered) made me realise that I was mortal, and if I continued working at my current pace, I would not be there to see my 3 grandchildren grow up.  After a (not very) long conversation with my family, I made the decision to retire from my Professorship here in York – after 28 years, and 45 years researching cancer.  For many, retirement is seen as the normal end to a working life, but for a scientist who has immersed himself in trying to understand cancer, putting an end to my research is like losing a limb.  I did however lose 35 pounds in weight – but I would not recommend my condition as a slimming aid. 

The saddest thing is that the University policy is not to look for a successor, but rather to renew by appointing ‘new blood’ as my replacement Professor.  My team in York has now shrunk to about 7 as I have run the research down, and as staff contracts have ended.  My Research Unit will close at the end of August, and there will no longer be prostate cancer research carried out here.  Thousands of research samples donated by cancer patients were likely to be lost, until Dr Fiona Frame, who has worked with me for many years, was appointed to a position at the University of Hull, and will be able to continue with the research there, using our enormous cancer tissue resource.  I must stress that Fiona’s research in Hull will not be MaitlandLab2, but FrameLab1.  The ethos and the core ideas will be the same, but it will be Fiona’s to direct.  I really hope that you will give Fiona the same support and friendship you have shown to me, and that together you can make cancer a disease not to be feared.

Just in case you thought I was off to the beach, I will not be gone altogether.  I have been made an Emeritus Professor at York, and will continue to provide advice and support until my brain finally gives up.  You can take the man out of science, but you cannot take the science out of the man!  We have lots of papers and articles still to write, describing the work that Charity Soul and others have supported: putting information into the public domain where it can be used by others to treat cancer. Statistics rule our lives.  In cancer research I can now even tell when another scientist has read one of my papers or whether they use the information in one of their papers, known as citation.  On average, over the last year, more than 10 scientists around the world have read our cancer papers every day by downloading from the internet, and 2 scientists or doctors cite the work every day in their own papers.  These statistics mean that the research you have supported is active and being used by others, rather than just being left in a dusty library as a historical fact!

Research Update May 2019

But what about our current research?  The students who carried out the lab work are just about to graduate.  Five out of the six who used Charity Soul support gained the highest degree class for their work (First Class Honours), including one student who was awarded the best ever mark given in my 35 years as an examiner.  So what did they do?  Two students used our Livecyte microscope to watch cancer cells dying after drug treatments.  We now know that this is a way to monitor the resistant cells (including the cancer stem cells), which we are currently analysing by sequencing their genes.  If we can stop cancer drug resistance, then patients will live longer!

In contrast, the other four students were continuing to ‘knock out’ the genes, which prevent normal cells from turning into cancer cells.  It is the fourth year of this project and potentially the most exciting.  In particular this was the first time that we had changed 2 different genes in the same cell.  These were our ‘favourites’ from the previous studies, and we think that we may have found the elusive cancer driver genes we have been looking for.  By adding a drug currently being tested in the USA to our engineered cancer cells, we showed that both genes had to be changed before the drug would work.  This links to something I have written about before – that all cancers are different, and unless we know the genetic changes present in each patient, then giving the same drug to 10 cancer patients will only produce a response in 3 or 4.  This wastes precious time for the patients and drug funding for the NHS.  I hope that the next 10 years will see the dawn of Personalised Treatments for Cancer.

So it isn’t the end: perhaps just the end of the beginning

Now who said that I wonder?

Whilst you think about it, I want to express my thanks again for your amazing support and your friendship.  In difficult times fundraising is challenging, for Charity Soul and even for large charities.  Terry and the other volunteers on the Charity Soul committee have discussed the future with me. I have dedicated all of my working life to Cancer Research,  but nobody is irreplaceable, as our politicians frequently discover.  I urge you to join Charity Soul in their support of Dr Frame’s Laboratory in Hull, with the knowledge that Charity Soul are a very real part of the efforts to develop our knowledge towards better treatments for every cancer patient.

PS: It was Winston Churchill who said it (or something very like it!)

Prof Norman J Maitland

31 May 2019