Honouring a giant of translational research: Stan Kaye

Cancer Research UK
Stan Kaye receiving his Lifetime Achievement Prize from CRUK Chief Clinician Peter Johnson. Image credit: Simon Callaghan Photography.

Our Lifetime Achievement Prize recognises individuals who have demonstrated a career-spanning commitment to the fight against cancer. In 2016 we awarded the Prize to Professor Stan Kaye, an extremely deserving winner who has made exceptional advances in the field of medical oncology that have had a major impact on people’s lives.

A lifelong passion

Stan’s interest in oncology was sparked while training as a doctor at Charing Cross Hospital in the 1970s, working with Ken Bagshawe who he describes as “one of the godfathers of medical oncology.” He witnessed the astonishing curability of the advanced cancer, choriocarcinoma, in young women and feels privileged to be there at such an exciting time when many of the key drugs, such as platinum, were being used for the first time. He says, “There were young men with testicular cancer, which was usually fatal, and all of a sudden we were curing them too”.

In 1985 he moved to the University of Glasgow where he set up a new state-of-the-art early stage clinical trials unit. Embedding his specialist interest in ovarian cancers, he founded the Scottish Gynaecological Cancer Trials Group, with some key results highlighting another of his career themes – tackling the challenge of drug resistance. Stan explains, “Before it became fashionable, we were collecting blood samples to understand why some people do better than others. That is now widely appreciated – and almost all trials will now have some sampling of blood or tumours to understand why subgroups do better or worse.”

Key ingredients for success

In Scotland, Stan was one of the first clinical cancer researchers to demonstrate the importance in translational research of the link between the laboratory and the clinic. He believes that to succeed you need a critical mass of people, hospital support, and support from an academic institute. He says, “to do really high quality cancer research that will make a difference to patients you have to have top class lab bench scientists working alongside doctors”, and he cites examples of Paul Workman and Allan Balmain from his time in Glasgow. He also emphasises, “it really does matter that its bench to bedside and back again – with material collected in the clinic going back to the lab.”

In 2000 he moved to The Institute of Cancer Research in London where he established the Drug Development Unit – now one of the largest and most successful in the world. One of his group’s most notable achievements was their pioneering work to develop the new PARP inhibitor, olaparib, which they demonstrated as an effective treatment for women with BRCA mutation-associated ovarian cancers. Stan says, “Once every 10 years or so something comes along that really changes treatment for a subgroup of cancer patients. Within a few months of taking it into the clinic, it was clear that it was making a difference – you could see the cancer shrinking.” The drug was approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014, with recent results suggesting that double the number of patients may benefit than originally thought. Led by his eventual successor as Head of the Drug Development Unit, Johann de Bono, his team were also the first to show the potential of abiraterone for prostate cancer patients and take it through to approval.

Making an impact on people’s lives

Stan is also an exceptional mentor and a role model. He has been instrumental in the education of a new generation of medical doctors who closely interact with lab scientists. He says, “At one point, you could have got the whole community of UK medical oncologists around one table. Now, I can look at a map and feel proud that I’ve helped people’s careers in cities all across the UK.” He adds, “One of the best things you can do as you get older is to look back and think there are younger folk to carry on who can do it better!”

According to Stan, the toughest part of being an oncologist is losing patients – but at the same time, this also motivated him to make improvements. Recently, he received a letter from a patient’s daughter. “She told me her mother had just enjoyed her 80th birthday party, which was also the 5th birthday of her youngest grandson. And she wanted to let me know how key it was for her mother to enjoy that – we’d given her an extra five years.”

It’s important to remember who you’re treating and why you’re doing the research – some of the humanity can be easily forgotten when you’re dealing with the science.

Hope for the future

Stan officially retired from his role at the ICR in 2014, but he’s not stopping yet. He says, “I’m now involved in health services research. We can make a difference by changing pathways and finding ways to diagnose cancer earlier.” He also remains an active advisor to many organisations.

Stan’s many outstanding contributions to the care and treatment of cancer patients and to the conduct of cancer research in the UK and internationally makes him a very worthy winner of our Lifetime Achievement Prize. Describing how he felt when he heard he had won, he says “I was flattered, but a little anxious as I didn’t feel I deserved it. I know people who have won the Award before – they are giants in terms of science, people who have made great contributions.”

Reflecting back over his career, Stan says: “If I had my time again, there is nothing else I’d rather have done.”

 

Timeline

1972 – Qualifies in medicine at the University of London, then completes training in medicine and oncology in London and Australia.
1985 – Appointed to the Chair of Medical Oncology at the University of Glasgow, where he sets up a state-of-the-art early stage clinical trials unit.
2000 – Moves to The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, establishing the Drug Development Unit.
2014 – Retires from the ICR, but remains an active advisor to many organisations.

 

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