Leading radiotherapy researcher leaves USA to lead new Oxford centre

Cancer Research UK

Professor Gillies McKenna takes up the post of Professor of Radiation Oncology and Biology at the University of Oxford this month.

Born in Scotland, Professor McKenna has led an illustrious career in the USA for the past 30 years. For 16 years he has held the position of Henry K. Pancoast Professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, where his main research interest was in making cells more sensitive to radiation by blocking mechanisms that control cell survival. His clinical interests are the treatment of lung cancer, soft tissue sarcomas, skin cancer, head and neck cancer, and melanomas.

He was recently headhunted to lead the University of Oxford’s new Institute for Radiation Biology Research, which is jointly funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the University of Oxford.

Professor McKenna says: “This is an exciting time to be in radiotherapy research, as there are so many new possibilities on the horizon. Finding new ways of targeting tumours more precisely with radiation and making tumours more susceptible to radiation will benefit many cancer patients in the future.

“The new centre is designed to foster collaboration between scientists from quite distinct areas of expertise, and I’m confident it will be the source of many groundbreaking discoveries.

“I am pleased to be returning to the UK to play a leading role in British research, which ranks among the best in the world.”

Areas of research at the new centre will include:

  • Delivering radiation to tumours in more sophisticated and precise ways, in order to kill more cancer cells
  • Using new imaging techniques to restrict radiotherapy to tumours. By protecting surrounding tissue doctors can reduce side effects for patients
  • Finding new ways of making tumours more sensitive to radiation, using molecular targets and other forms of treatment

Professor John Toy, Cancer Research UK’s Medical Director, says: “We are proud to be part-funding this world-class centre, which is attracting some of the best research talent in the UK and abroad.

“Radiotherapy is a major mainstay of cancer treatment. Doctors have been treating cancer with radiation for approximately 100 years and radiotherapy still plays a large role in curing and controlling cancer.

“The new centre aims to build up a 'critical mass' of radiotherapy experts to explore the treatment's full potential. Appointing Professor McKenna to lead the project is a marvellous and crucial first step to have taken.

Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council says: “We’re delighted Professor McKenna has chosen to continue his groundbreaking work in the United Kingdom. This partnership and his appointment offer us the opportunity to translate radiation biology and radiotherapy research for the benefit of patients.”

Dr Kenneth Fleming, Head of the Medical Sciences Division at the University of Oxford says: “Oxford is very pleased to have attracted Professor McKenna back to the UK to lead our research in radiation biology and oncology. This major programme, undertaken jointly with the MRC and CRUK, is an important and exciting part of our broad research in cancer, which will be of great benefit to patients everywhere.”

Notes to Editor

One in three people will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage during their lifetime and one in four people will die of the disease.

About 40 per cent of cancer patients receive radiotherapy and it remains one of the most successful ways of curing and controlling cancer.

The Institute for Radiation Biology Research is an amalgamation of the Gray Cancer Institute, which will move from London, and the MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit, which will move from Harwell.

Cancer Research UK and MRC will together spend approximately £6 million per annum on research at the new Institute.

In conjunction with his new professorship, Professor McKenna will hold the positions of Honorary MRC Director of the Radiation and Genome Stability Unit, Harwell, and Honorary Director of the Gray Cancer Institute.

He is Past-President of the Radiation Research Society as well as a member of various national and international radiation and oncology societies.