In conversation with our Chair, Sir Borys - Finding answers to the whys

Cancer Research UK

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, known as ‘Borys’ to most, has worn many hats. Before becoming Chair of Cancer Research UK, he was Vice Chancellor at the University of Cambridge, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council and Deputy Rector of Imperial College London. He was also a founding Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Before that, his work on a vaccine to treat cervical cancer earned him a knighthood. With current roles including sitting on the boards of The Courtauld Institute of Art and the Royal Society, it’s a wonder he had time to speak with Joanna Lewin about his busy career. But gladly, he did. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?

No, not really. I wasn’t a brilliant pupil. I spent a lot of time playing guitar and not much time studying. But I enjoyed science and studied it at university. I was one of those irritating people who was always asking “Why?” and eventually a professor replied, “The answer is we don’t know, but there’s a library over there which will help you understand the knowledge we have and what’s left to answer.” That fascinated me. I decided then that I would look for a job in medicine with a strong research base to find answers to the whys.

Tell us about your work on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. How did that come about?

I was at the gloriously named Herpes Virus Workshop in Seattle in the early 80s when everyone was still working on the assumption that cervical cancer was caused by a strain of herpes. A scientist called Harald zur Hausen stood up and told 500 researchers dedicated to herpes that it was not in fact the most common association – HPV was. That made me look at things in a totally different way. I was particularly interested in why 99% of women who are infected with HPV clear it with no problem, and just the odd one case develops into cervical cancer.

We started adapting the cellular immune system, in an early form of immunotherapy, to clear the infection when the body wasn’t naturally able to do it. At the same time, researchers in Australia and at the National Cancer Institute were working on a preventative vaccine, which is in current use. Their idea was to stop the infection entering the body in the first place. For us, the question was: Can we clear HPV when women are already infected? We got some signals early on that this kind of immune approach could work. It’s very gratifying to see how immunotherapy has developed since.

Your work on the HPV vaccine saw you receive a knighthood. What was that like?

Weird. First of all, you don’t get told who has nominated you. I still have no idea 18 years later. I was at a meeting abroad and my wife rang to say I’d received a letter from the Prime Minister’s office. She said, “They want to give you an honour – a big one”. It was completely out of the blue. Also, scientists work in teams. I was working with about 40 people and I wondered why I was being singled out for this. But, of course, it was amazing. I got to hail a taxi and say, “Take me to Buckingham Palace!”

I have this passionate belief that we really are within touching distance of achieving great things for people affected by cancer

What is the proudest moment of your career so far?

I’ve always taken the view in life that when you come to a crossroads, you can choose to go left or right, and once you’ve chosen to go left, don’t look back. So, I don’t spend much of my time looking backwards and that means there’s only one answer: being Chair of Cancer Research UK. Of course, I’m proud of my other governance roles, as well as leading my research group and being a consultant physician. But because I have this passionate belief that we really are within touching distance of achieving great things for people affected by cancer, my current role is the most tantalising.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I really enjoy painting and I’ve just completed oil portraits of my grandchildren. I’m very pleased to now sit on the board of The Courtauld Institute of Art. It’s great to be able to look at the genius on display there and then look at your own pathetic offerings and try to improve…  I’m also hugely into rugby and I’m President of Cambridge University Rugby and Football Club. Cricket’s a bit of an obsession too and I find chess fascinating.

And then there’s my family – my wife, daughters and five grandchildren. If you strip away everything else, they’re what really counts. I’ve just come back from two days of babysitting and have another two days to come. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

You can find for part two of our interview, in which we explore Sir Borys’ role as Chair and the importance of collaboration to cancer research, here 

Joanna Lewin is Philanthropy & Partnerships Communications Manager and Editor at Cancer Research UK