The project supported by Life Cycle 6 is looking to find early signals of cancer in patients’ blood. We’ve never been able to detect the incorrect proteins produced by early cancer cells – it’s swamped by the normal proteins.
By the time we can detect the abnormal proteins the cancer has spread. So these antigens were useful as cancer markers but have never been useful in early detection. I turned my attention to antibodies in the blood.
The immune system responds to abnormal cancer proteins by producing antibodies, many more than the tiny amount of protein that triggered it, so rather than looking for a needle in a haystack you are looking for a haystack. You can look for the reaction to [the proteins] and hopefully find the cancer early enough to cure.
My second research project is developing drugs for breast cancer. We have made significant advances but breast cancer is still the third most common cause of death across the population and the second most common cause of death among women in this country. There is clearly a lot to do.
We’re doing things people haven’t seen before
My wife used to say Clem Imrie, a surgeon in Glasgow who also did research, was the reason I got into this - she said it was his fault! He just had an excitement about his own work and that inspired me to also do research. One of the things I love about it is you’re always seeing something new – in the blood test we’re doing things which people haven’t seen before.
It will allow people to have the risk identified and managed more appropriately. So we would see better outcomes, less aggressive treatments and increased survival rates. It would be more cost-effective and we wouldn’t need as many drugs for as many patients.
Find something that is really of interest to you – you’re going to do this for a long time. Work hard. Einstein said the harder I work the luckier I get. To achieve you need a work-life balance but real commitment to bring your work forward.
In breast cancer the challenge is to find treatments that are targeted and are not over-treating or under-treating
We know that early detection saves lives but we certainly haven’t found the optimal screening test for cancer and particularly for the three most common cancers (lung, colon and breast cancers), which cause so many deaths. In breast cancer the challenge is to find treatments that are targeted and are not over treating or under treating.
A group of researchers focusing on HER2, a breast cancer subtype, over the past 20 years have made an enormous difference in the outlook of these women. It used to be a tumour type that had a very poor prognosis and with new treatments that has radically changed.
I’d like to see where man had got to in terms of exploration of the Universe. We’re moving forward at such a speed and if we see a similar exponential growth in science and knowledge in the next 100 years we’re going to have new understanding in terms of space, colonisation, energy, time travel.
I think from a medical perspective to go back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when we were seeing new understanding of disease processes, and becoming more rational in terms of surgery and treatments. These must have been heady days.
Global Research ThemeHealth and Wellbeing
Research Priority AreaCancer
View John's full profile
John Robertson, Professor of Surgery in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Director of the Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer, leads the team looking to develop the world’s first blood test for the early detection of breast cancer. He is riding 1,400 miles with Life Cycle 6 to help raise £1m for breast cancer research.
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