Sir Hugh Pelham on killing cancer cells, AstraZeneca, Brexit and ‘Peak Cambridge’

PUBLISHED: 14:21 26 January 2018 | UPDATED: 10:36 29 January 2018

Prof Sir Hugh Pelham is retiring as director of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Picture: Keith Heppell

Prof Sir Hugh Pelham is retiring as director of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

Cambridge is the UK capital of life sciences, and a recent event confirmed that what’s happening here is astonishing!

A packed conference hall at Homerton College for the 'Has Cambridge become the capital of UK Life Sciences?' conference at Homerton College. Picture: Keith HeppellA packed conference hall at Homerton College for the 'Has Cambridge become the capital of UK Life Sciences?' conference at Homerton College. Picture: Keith Heppell

Unless disfigured by Brexit, the life sciences sector in Cambridge is at the start of its first golden age.

The packed conference hall at Homerton College for the “How has Cambridge become the capital of UK Life Sciences?” event heard from world-class speakers on topics including the political drama currently being enacted in the UK.

The city-based life sciences pacesetters at this Cambridge University Health Partners event all reported on advances almost unthinkable until very recently.

The introductory address from Professor Sir Hugh Pelham, director of the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said that the sector’s role is not simply development work but is “to do what they currently cannot do, in fact to do what seems impossible – while keeping an eye on the medical applications”.

Sir Hugh spoke with the Cambridge Independent at Homerton College immediately following the event.

Did you enjoy today’s event?

“I have to say I was a bit puzzled about what it was but it turned out to be very interesting! I think there may be an appetite for this kind of thing.”

Indeed! So maybe there will be more such conferences?

“I think so. The life science community is a great asset to Cambridge and the more we talk about these highly relevant topics the better.”

How are things going at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB)?

“Well, we can’t complain. We just won a Nobel prize for chemistry with Richard Henderson, which is a great success. Given everything else that’s going on we’re doing rather well.”

The issue of Brexit was raised today. Is it something that worries you?

“Well obviously I’m worried about Brexit but things could be worse.”

In what way?

“The government is saying it understands the global nature of science and it wants to support that. There’s still some unhappiness but it’s easing.”

It still seems hard to tell how it’s going to play out?

“We’re now in a strange limbo so people are just waiting to see. People aren’t panicking yet. It has to come out right or else there will be panicking later.”

Are we now at Peak Cambridge? Should we give it a few years to see how the current building programme beds in?

“One of the very interesting questions is will Cambridge outgrow itself to the point where it becomes not such a great place to live and work? For instance 60 per cent of our staff cycle to work and that requires people to live fairly close by. They want family homes and if they have to live further away that proximity gets harder to maintain. But AstraZeneca is a great boost to Cambridge, and to us, and that’s working fine.”

You mentioned in your introductory talk on protein quality control and science that there may be a mechanism being uncovered to kill cancer cells. Do they have to be killed or can they be switched off?

“Cancer cells are intrinsically stressed as they are abnormal and they’re making the wrong kinds of proteins, so the stress goes up, catastrophically so, so the idea would be to kill them, or totally inhibit them. It’s one method being explored at this early stage. We’re trying to understand the basic mechanisms in these cells.

“In our collaboration with AstraZeneca with the Blue Skies Fund (to fund a range of pre-clinical research projects aimed at better understanding the biology of disease) what we’re looking at is not curing cancer, it’s a new line of attack on cancer cells. We find that interesting (at the LMB). At AstraZeneca they find it interesting and relevant, so we’ll see where it ends up.”

What’s the next step?

“It’s a development where we’re talking about something we’re already experts on. Scientists are not very good at doing something that’s never been done before.

“You build on what’s been done over a period of years, and the trick is to see something you’re interested in and the skill is just doing something slightly differently and it might just be fruitful.

“It’s building on existing strengths – that’s why the AstraZeneca collaboration is so interesting. We’re not saying let’s do it differently, we’re saying let’s do it this way.”

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