Despite huge leaps in the field of cancer research, the condition is still the main cause of death of people under 75 in the Western world. It is this kind of grim statistic that drives Stockholm University professor Thomas Helleday in his groundbreaking work on a daily basis.
As a 16-year-old volunteer on a cancer ward, Helleday was so moved by the harsh side effects of the radiotherapy chemotherapy experienced by patients, that he set himself a personal goal of improving cancer treatment, to help extend and improve the quality of the lives of cancer patients.
Helleday’s team at Stockholm University’s Department of Genetics, Microbiology and Toxicology focuses on improving treatment by identifying and attacking the defects in certain cancer cells, and on producing specific drugs to treat the defects, causing minimal side-effects. Helleday is also MRC Professor of Cancer Therapeutics at the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at the University of Oxford.
His groundbreaking work has seen Helleday win a string of young European research awards, generate huge funding in his field and seen his team’s work described as ”Potentially the biggest breakthrough in cancer research for decades.”
”We have a novel approach to treatment,” says the professor. ”We specialise in using old fashioned, but still very good methods, as a basis and complement them with new ideas, in this case using genetics to identify cancer targets”.
Helleday’s breakthrough came when he began studying an enzyme called PARP, which helps to repair DNA. PARP inhibitors stop cancer cells with specific genetic defects from growing and spreading. Helleday’s team introduced the concept, which in clinical trials have had positive results that can contribute to significant advance in cancer research.
Crucially for the patients, the side effects are minimal. ”It doesn't have many side effects because it's a protein that's normally not required by the rest of the body," Helleday explains.
The next challenge for the professor is to develop his work with transitional medicine. The idea is to identify novel genes which can detect the pathways of the defective cells and selectively kill off the cancers. ”I am very lucky that Sweden places such a high value on this kind of work. In other countries like the UK and States the economical situation is not as favourable,” says Helleday.
There are many reasons why Sweden is considered to be such a good country for this kind of research. ”I think a lot of it has to do with the Swedes themselves. Here, people are so much more happy to work collaboratively, which really helps with what we do. In other countries researchers are often more interested in forwarding their own personal agenda. In Sweden the attitude is more 'What can we do,' says Helleday.
That he has achieved so much at such a relatively young age comes as little surprise to the people who know him. Having formulated a plan in his youth to do something about cancer research, he studied business and molecular biology as an undergraduate. By the time he was 35, Helleday was a full professor and laboratory head at two institutions in two countries, Sweden and Britain.
He obtained his first degree in molecular biology at the Stockholm University in 1995 and, alongside these studies, he took a degree in Business Administration and Economics at the same university the following year. In 1999, he was awarded a PhD from Stockholm University for his studies on homologous recombination in mammalian cells.
More recently, this February, he was awarded the prestigious five-year €2.5 million ERC grant.
”The grant is generally given to more outreaching kinds of projects, the types that often find it hard to win funding. It is often the bolder kind of project that wins this grant,” says Helleday.
”It is encouraging to know that others also believe in our idea, which has been in the pipeline for a while but without the resources to see it through. The grant will allow us to expand our translational research with the aim to bring new and effective anti-cancer therapies to patients,” he adds.
”I think there is an amazing amount of work being done on understanding the disease and the causes of it. Where research has been lacking is on the therapy side. This is changing as well though, and it helps that more and more scientists are taking their knowledge and applying it in ways that they hadn’t been before.”
This approach to providing treatment and novel forms of therapy has justifiably enhanced Helleday’s reputation both in Sweden and further afield. The goal he had as a teenager to eradicate the suffering of cancer patients may not be unique, but few people can claim to have done so much to turn it into reality
Article sponsored by Stockholm University.