Charles Swanton (2015 Chair)
Head of Translational Cancer Therapeutics
The Frances Crick Institute, London, UK and University College London Cancer Institute, UK
What area of cancer research do you specialise in and how did you get in to it?
Cancer genome instability and evolution: my experience managing patients with cancer drug resistance and my early PhD work at Imperial Cancer Research Fund in the cancer cell cycle led to my interests in how cancer cells proliferate, adapt and evolve to treatments through the disease course and most importantly, what we can do to limit these processes.
What inspired you to forge a career in cancer research?
My father was diagnosed with a diffuse large B cell lymphoma during my first year at medical school in 1991. At the time I thought this was a death sentence. After chemotherapy and radiotherapy (and working as a full time NHS consultant throughout) he was disease-free and has remained so ever since. It was remarkable to me at the time (and still is today), and inspired me to try to contribute in my own way to progress research into this disease.
What have you been working on most recently?
We are focussing on the cytosine deaminase APOBEC3B. We have found that APOBEC mutational processes appear to be implicated in driving subclonal cancer expansions and intratumour heterogeneity in bladder, breast, lung, and head and neck cancers. We are trying to understand why this is and how the APOBEC family is regulated in the hope we might be able to stop the process.
What do you perceive to be the biggest challenges in cancer research?
Intratumour heterogeneity is without a doubt the biggest clinical challenge that limits treatment efficacy, contributing to excessive cancer drug development costs and confounding our ability to cure many patients with advanced metastatic disease.
What do you consider to be the most exciting development in cancer research at present?
Understanding how tumours evolve and how processes governing tumour adaptation may be exploited for patient benefit.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Cycling 950 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats – even if it did take 14 days longer than the world record!
What has been the biggest challenge of chairing the Committee so far?
Finding the time to fit it all in!
What have you enjoyed about being the Chair of the Committee?
Meeting new people from diverse disciplines.
Will participants get the chance to talk with you and other members of the Committee during the Conference?
I hope so! If not at the conference, at the bar later?
How have the Committee chosen what will appear on the programme?
We wanted a strong focus on four main aspects related to cancer evolution. Firstly, identify experts to discuss the latest data on cancer heterogeneity and evolution and how circulating biomarkers may be able to inform patient care in light of a rapidly changing cancer genome. Secondly how heterogeneity might be exploited through immunotherapy. Thirdly, focussing on how heterogeneity occurs in tumours through distinct genomic instability processes, initiated by endogenous and exogenous environmental stresses. Finally, screening and early diagnosis sessions will focus on diagnosing cancers earlier before heterogeneity has set in.
What are you looking forward to most about this year’s Conference?
This is a difficult question to answer. The whole conference is packed with exciting sessions. I am particularly looking forward to the Tim Hunt/Dennis Slamon double bill on the cancer cell cycle covering the extraordinary progress that has been made in the last 3 decades from discovery to exploitation of the CDKs that regulate the major decision step in cancer cell division in G1 phase. The parallel session on health economics and cancer will be controversial. We have the BBC economist, Robert Peston, chairing this session with Tito Fojo from the National Cancer Institute in the US, which should lead to a very lively debate. Standing room only I hope.
What is the significance of this year’s Conference?
We have an unprecedented speaker line up, I can hardly believe the people who have agreed to attend this year including a Nobel prize winner (Tim Hunt). The plenaries will be phenomenal with talks from Carl June, Harald Zur Hausen, Anna Barker, Malcolm Brenner, Kristian Helin and Charles Sawyers to name just a few.
What do you predict to be the highlights of this year’s Conference?
We have a very strong focus on immune-oncology, with symposia and parallel sessions chaired by Adrian Hayday and Sergio Quezada. Both of these sessions look outstanding.
What would you say to convince people to attend this year’s Conference?
This will be better than AACR, ESMO or ASCO, and cheaper.
How will attending the Conference benefit students and those in the early stages of their career?
It will provide an excellent opportunity to meet and chat with scientists and clinicians about their work. Sharon Vanloo (NCRI) also organises a legendary conference dinner and band.
Why should researchers submit their work to this Conference?
It is a great forum for feedback and discussion with plenty of time dedicated to poster viewing and talks within parallel sessions.
If you could sum up the Conference in one word, what would it be any why?
As my daughters would say: “EPIC”
What do you like to do to relax?
Hill walking, mountain biking.
What has life taught you?
Never give up.
What inspires you in life?
The altruism of patients suffering from cancer
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Spending time with my wife and two daughters.
What would your dream holiday be?
Driving with my family through the Namib desert, Kalahari Gemsbok and Botswana rounded off by a trip through the Okavango delta.
Describe yourself in three words
Single-minded, persistent, irritating.
If you could choose one piece of art (film/play/book/music) that you love, what would it be and why?
U2, The Joshua Tree. Middle of the road and populist, but I love this album- it covers so many emotions in life and science; love, loss, failure, addiction…!
What do you do for fun?
Name three things you would take with you to a desert island?
My iphone, telephone mast and an electrical generator. That way I can read, communicate with the lab/family and have a torch at night.