He pioneered methods to distinguish different types of leukaemia, allowing doctors to provide more tailored treatments to their patients – improving their chances of survival and reducing side effects.
He was also a pioneer in introducing the concept that cancers progress and become more malignant and drug resistant through a process equivalent to the evolution of species by natural selection.
Professor Greaves of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is following in the footsteps of legendary scientists such as Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday, who also won the Royal Medal.
Establishing the first leukaemia research centre
Inspired by visits to an Italian hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital in London in the 1970s, where he met children with leukaemia, Professor Greaves became interested in cancer research. Very little was known about leukaemia at that time.
Professor Mel Greaves joined the ICR in 1984 to establish the UK’s first leukaemia research centre (funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund, now known as Bloodwise). Over more than 30 years his team has made major advances to help us better understand the biology, natural history and possible causes of leukaemia, as well as stimulating new approaches to treatment.
In the late 1980s, Professor Greaves proposed that acute lymphoid leukaemia (ALL), a childhood form of the disease, begins to develop in the womb before birth but needs a post-natal trigger derived from the impact of common infections – specifically in children who, in developed societies, had deficits in infection exposures in their first years.
The ‘delayed infection’ hypothesis presented by Professor Greaves was then supported by evidence from a meta-analysis of population studies that showed attending day care centres, in infancy, where infections could be acquired by social contact, reduces risk of ALL.
By studying identical twins with leukaemia and archived blood samples from new-born babies, in the 1990s, Professor Greaves’ lab at the ICR uncovered the mutational changes that trigger childhood leukaemia in utero.
Tailored therapies for children with leukaemia
In his early career Professor Greaves showed that ALL could be separated into four separate sub-types and that the variety of ALL a child has, could help predict how well they would do after treatment.This led to more tailored therapies for each child depending on the sub-type of ALL they have. Professor Greaves’ work continues to influence current treatment for children with leukaemia.
Following his earlier ground-breaking discoveries, Professor Greaves pioneered the application of evolutionary biology to cancer, working principally with childhood leukaemia but expanding on this work to apply the same Darwinian principles to cancer in general. He went on to establish the key role cancer stem cells play in how cancer evolves to become resistant to treatment.
In January 2014, Professor Greaves became the first Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the ICR.
Three Royal Medals are awarded each year. Two are awarded for the most important contributions to the advancement of ‘Natural Knowledge’ in the physical and biological sciences respectively. A third medal is awarded for distinguished contributions in the applied sciences.
Professor Greaves has received the latter award in recognition of the impact his research has had on the understanding of the biology of childhood leukaemia, its possible causes, differential diagnosis and effective treatment.
Tremendous childhood leukaemia research progress
Professor Mel Greaves, Leader of the Biology of Childhood Leukaemia Team and Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the ICR said:
“I am honoured and very pleasantly surprised to receive this prestigious medal and join such a stellar list of previous recipients. Childhood leukaemia was once considered to be universally fatal but thanks to the tremendous research progress made over the past 40 years, treatment is largely successful.
“When I made the decision in the mid-1970s to focus on childhood leukaemia, the primary motivation was the thought that these little patients, clinging tenaciously to life, could be my own children who were, at the time, the same age.
“I could never have imagined how my career would develop in the decades that followed but I feel very privileged to have been in a position to contribute towards the unpicking of this once mysterious and lethal disease in children.”
Inspiring cancer researchers across the world
Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of the ICR, said:
“Mel’s breakthroughs have helped transform our understanding of how childhood leukaemia develops, its biological diversity and response to treatment.
“We also have to thank Mel for inspiring cancer researchers across the world to look at cancer from an evolutionary perspective. This approach is helping us find new ways to target and treat cancer and will have a major impact on future discoveries for decades to come.”
Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said:
“The Royal Society has a long-standing tradition of celebrating the best and brightest scientists.
“The winners of this year’s medals and awards have made outstanding contributions to their field and I congratulate them for their distinguished work and the advancement of science as a whole.”