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Dr Gordon Peters

Dr Gordon Peters was an exceptional scientist who contributed hugely to our understanding of cancer. He was funded by Cancer Research UK, and our predecessor the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, for much of his career. And it’s therefore with great sadness that we share the news that Gordon passed away from oesophageal cancer earlier this month.

I was one of those privileged enough to know and work with Gordon, studying for my PhD in his lab until 2013. In addition to the brilliance of his science, I will always remember and be thankful for his generosity as a mentor.

Gordon was fascinated by how and when cells choose to divide. A process that is necessary for children to grow and for adults to repair wounds. But mistakes during this process can also lead to cancer. Gordon looked at the control mechanisms in place in our cells to stop them dividing and wanted to know why these controls are lost in cancer cells.

His work led to the development of a group of drugs called CDK4 inhibitors, which are now used to treat cancer patients. These drugs work by regaining control of how and when cancer cells divide, blocking them from making any more divisions. In some patients, this can stop their tumour from growing.

‘A substantial contribution’

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Gordon (left) and Clive (right) together in the lab

Dr Clive Dickson, who worked with Gordon for many years, shared with us the impact Gordon’s science, and his personality, had on his colleagues:

“There is no doubt that Gordon has made a substantial contribution to cancer research and our understanding of cellular senescence.

“Gordon was an outstanding scientist possessing a clear analytical mind, a talent for experimentation and absolute scientific integrity.

“He was kind, generous and self-effacing. He was a talented writer and consequently he was always in demand by his colleagues to read and give advice on their manuscripts; and he always managed to find time to accommodate them. He will be remembered with great warmth and affection by all who knew him.”

Gordon enjoyed analysing difficult problems through open discussions, seeking opinions from every member of the lab and colleagues further afield. His generosity in sharing his time, knowledge and advice is something that many past colleagues and friends remember.

Gordon played an important role as a mentor to many colleagues and students who studied in his lab. His support enabled them to go on and have successful scientific careers of their own. But he was equally supportive of those seeking alternative careers, including myself.

During my PhD I started exploring career options and became interested in science policy. Not only did Gordon encourage me to find out more but he helped me to get the experience I needed to change careers. Three years on and I’m still happily working in the Policy Department at Cancer Research UK thanks to his support.

And this support and guidance was something Gordon offered to many over his career, including Professor Charles Swanton, who worked for Gordon, and then alongside him, at our London Research Institute (LRI), before going on to become one of the world’s leading cancer researchers.

He was incredibly supportive and open to a medical student with two left hands fumbling around in his laboratory talking to his staff trying to learn the ropes

– Professor Charles Swanton

“Gordon was always patient, supportive and helpful,” Charles told us. “At crisis point, he provided sound advice and urged the need for change. As a result of these discussions, I started a new project in Gordon’s lab. He was incredibly supportive and open to a medical student with two left hands fumbling around in his laboratory talking to his staff trying to learn the ropes.

“This was an amazing time in his laboratory – Gordon was unravelling the intricacies of cell division, research that in no small part has contributed to advances in CDK4/6 targeted therapies we are seeing in the clinic 20 years later. You could feel the excitement and energy in his laboratory.

“As a result of his support, this set me down a track I would never have dreamed was possible, including a PhD and a career in science which at my mid-term report looked very unlikely.

“His mentorship and support continued throughout my career and was again particularly valuable at the difficult time of tenure. He came up to me at the end of a chalk talk at the LRI in 2011, well before our work was fit for submission, and said: ‘Charlie – you must continue with this – it’s important’. These scientific words of encouragement made all the difference.”

A warm, kind and generous nature

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Gordon at his allottment

Gordon had many hobbies and interests outside of the lab.

His skill as an experimental scientist was mirrored in his green fingered successes in the garden, and he would often share his first prize produce with colleagues.

He was also a keen cook and held summer gatherings at his family home in Sussex for members of his lab.

From a young age, Gordon was also very musical. Unfortunately, his attempts to introduce us to different genres of music – in particular favourites from his time as a researcher in the US – failed to make an impression on us, and Absolute Radio continued to dictate the background music to our experiments.

Gordon will be remembered as much for his warm, kind and generous nature as his skill and success as a scientist.

Through the person he was, Gordon created an inspiring, nurturing and collaborative working environment in the lab – discoveries from which will continue to benefit many cancer patients for years to come.

Hollie

If you knew or worked with Gordon, please do leave your tribute in the comments below, or email us at scienceblog@cancer.org.uk and we will post it for you.

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