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Professor Richard Gilbertson

Professor Richard Gilbertson spends his days carrying out pioneering research into children’s cancers at our Cambridge Cancer Centre.

A world-renowned expert in children’s brain tumours, Richard’s work is leading the way towards better, kinder treatments, helping more children survive their disease.

But Richard hasn’t always been a scientist – his journey into the lab began as a student in medical school.

So what drove him to trade his stethoscope for a microscope? And what motivates him as a researcher? Read Richard’s inspiring story below to find out how he’s helping make progress on children’s cancers.

Opening the door to research

Right now, more children than ever are surviving cancer.

In late 1970s, just 2 in 5 children in the UK survived their disease for at least 5 years. Now, over 8 in 10 children will survive cancer for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

And that’s thanks to research.

But while progress has been made, every year children still die from cancer; something that Richard is all too familiar with.

“Back in my second year of medical school, I saw a child dying of medulloblastoma,” he recalls. Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumour in children.

“I asked her doctor what treatments were available for her, and he said there weren’t any. He said that they had done everything they can, and that all they could do was let her die in peace.

A child shouldn’t have to die in peace – they should be able to enjoy the rest of their life.

– Professor Richard Gilbertson

“That made me angry. A child shouldn’t have to die in peace – they should be able to enjoy the rest of their life. And that’s what motivated me as a medical student to start working on medulloblastoma.”

Though that heartache and frustration may have ignited Richard’s passion, it was an evening at his local pub that same year which changed the course of his career forever.

“I was in the pub one night with my best friend and fellow medic Nigel,” Richard says. “He told me that at the end of our careers, no matter which field of medicine we chose, we should have been responsible for a 15% reduction in deaths from a disease that we worked on.

“I’ve never forgotten that. And I made it my goal to be able to say that when I retire, 15% more children will survive brain tumours because of the work that we do.”

And while there is no doubt that this ambition is a noble one, hanging up his stethoscope to achieve that goal was no rash decision.“I loved working with kids,” says Richard, “and I loved doing medicine. But I knew that to get to the 15%, it would be through research.

“So that meant opening the door on the lab and closing the door on the clinic forever. But I haven’t regretted it.”

Finding signposts

Throughout his career, Richard has seen more and more children being cured of medulloblastoma.

But he points out that while boosting survival is the mainstay of cancer research, in some cases this has not been without cost.

“The significant improvements in survival of medulloblastoma have been achieved through increasingly intense treatments, which are associated with serious long-term side effects,” Richard says.

“Of course, doctors and parents want cures. But when you have no rule books, how do you decide when to reduce treatment for patients to lower the risk of these effects later in life?”

That’s where Richard’s work comes in.

Children's cancer

Through his research, Richard hopes to spare children unnecessary treatment

His lab is interested in the origins of cancers, particularly children’s brain tumours. Through his research, Richard hopes to answer this burning question which has stumped scientists and doctors alike for decades: why, when treated the same way, do some children with brain tumours survive while others sadly don’t?

Through answering this, he hopes to be able to improve treatments so that children are given the minimum amount needed to cure their disease, while sparing their developing bodies lasting damage.

And over the past 15 years, Richard and his team have made significant progress towards this goal.

Walking the treatment tightrope

Largely thanks to his research, we now know that medulloblastomas are not one single disease, but rather a collection of diseases born from different brain cells and involving different genetic flaws.

And perhaps most importantly, earlier this year his team shed first light on why some types of medulloblastoma are curable. And, therefore, why others aren’t.

“We found that these more treatable tumours produce lots of proteins that make them ‘leaky’ to drugs,” Richard says. “So for these children the door is always open to chemotherapy, which is why the tumours respond well to the treatment.

“And we could switch this effect on and off in cells in the lab. So if we could make harder-to-treat forms of the disease produce these proteins in patients, then perhaps we could allow more chemotherapy drugs to flood in and make the tumours curable.”

And it’s this knowledge, Richard says, that will help researchers along the path to more personalised treatments.

“Understanding the biology of tumour cells provides doctors with rules and directions that they can follow to tread that fine line between cure and harm,” he says.

“That’s my research.”

Dreaming of empty rooms

It can take years, even decades, for research to be translated into something that benefits patients.

But the more scientists work together, exchanging ideas, resources and expertise, the faster their discoveries can make their way into the clinic.

That’s why Richard fills the gaps of his demanding schedule as a researcher with directing our Cambridge Cancer Centre.

“What we’re doing here is bringing together a range of disciplines – doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers, chemists and physicists – all under one roof, working on the most devastating cancers of both children and adults,” he says.

“This means we can see how to best place people to make the biggest impact on curing these cancers.

I firmly believe we’ll cure brain tumours. I’m absolutely committed to that.

– Professor Richard Gilbertson

“It’s incredibly exciting.”

And though the journey ahead may be long and difficult, for Richard, cures are in sight.

“I firmly believe we’ll cure brain tumours,” he says. “I’m absolutely committed to that.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy – I’ve been working on it for 20-30 years. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe it were possible.”

And unlike most of us, he’s committed to putting himself out of a job.

“What if I was to open the door to the clinic and it was to be empty?” he wonders.

“That would be magic.”

Justine

  • Find out more about Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens – our campaign to raise money for research into cancers affecting children, teens and young adults.

Comments

Louise Todd November 10, 2016

Amazing to think we have such dedicated people looking after us all they are unsung Herod. Don’t go to the USA particularly now!

C. Jennings November 8, 2016

What an amazing and inspirational person. I think there should be more help given to Professor Richard Gilbertson to help them find a cure.

Kirsty mactavish November 8, 2016

What an amazing man. Hopefully one day in the near future a cure will be found.

Susan November 8, 2016

God bless Richard and his team, no family should have to watch a child suffer with cancer hopefully one day thanks to research they won’t have to.

Martin Savage November 8, 2016

Good Afternoon,
What a wonderful story of Professor Richard Gilbertson’s commitment to the well being of others and in particular, Children. To change career for such a purpose can only gain admiration and respect from those in this life and the next. A truly wonderful man for which many should be very grateful for, clearly.

I am sure Professor Gilbertson’s Ancestors are very proud of him.
I wish you a good day

Janet November 8, 2016

I. Wish you every success

Pauline November 8, 2016

What a wonderful gentleman! If the world had more caring people like Richard – how much better it would be!! Thank you Richard – for really making a difference!

Rita James November 8, 2016

What a man the history of cancer in my family is unreal that’s why I’ve been doing race for life for 15yrs never missed one plus 6yrs of doing a 24hr relay for life I’ve lost my dad to sisters and buried my mum last week but I carry on and grateful I can get out of bed everyday so many thanks for what you are doing

Christa November 8, 2016

This is an exciting and inspirational article to read! I think the personal side of you sitting in the pub chatting to your best friend is the kind of stuff we can all relate to! Obviously cancer affects and will affect so many of us including children!! As a mother of two small children myself it hurts to think of the many families going through this- I really really think you should also work with holistic and music therapists together-the experience of reiki and music changed my life and I have met others who absolutely believe reiki works amazingly on children who are unwell also!! I really think many doctors in the West underestimate how powerful holistic therapies can be!! For me drug treatment and holistic therapies go hand in hand!! It can be trial and error with reiki therapists but once you find someone you connect well with the impact on health and wellbeing can be mind blowing!! At the very least it is highly likely to ease pain and help children feel more comfortable! I stumbled on reiki be accident and now can’t quite get over my personal experience!! I have two degrees and have worked with offenders and those with mental illness for a decade! I truly believe holistics have a much bigger part to play in our future for general health and wellbeing! I would be very happy to share a more detailed account of my experiences and my discussions with other mums who believe in reiki for children- if this is something you would consider!! Thank you

Tricia Woodgate November 8, 2016

What an inspirational story! What a dedicated man. It breaks my heart to learn of children with Cancer. I may sometimes think, at 66, that is unfair for me to be facing cancer treatment for a third time in 10 years, but to think of children, their lives supposedly ahead of them, having to face this is so unjust. Good luck prof Richard.

Kathleen November 8, 2016

Thank God for Richard and his team. We need dedicated people like him to bear cancer of all types.