Stephen West has been awarded a lifetime achievement award by Cancer Research UK for his pioneering work in DNA repair.
A research group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, Steve has made key discoveries about the molecules involved in DNA repair throughout his career.
“For the past 30 years, it has become increasingly clear that many cancers stem from defects in DNA repair mechanisms,” he explains, “so a better understanding of the fundamental biology is vital for working out new ways to tackle the disease.
“We are delighted that our work has contributed to the challenge to cure cancers,” he says. “But of course there is still so much to find out, and we expect there will be many more twists and turns that lead us to a more complete understanding of the ways in which damaged chromosomes are repaired”.
He credits the work of many people in his team in pushing this research forwards, and relishes what they’ve gone on to achieve: “I’ve been lucky to have many exceptionally talented students and postdocs,” says Steve. “Often their findings changed the direction of our research. I’m particularly proud that former students are now leading independent research groups at prestigious institutions in the UK and USA.”
Steve’s research has focused on the isolation and characterisation of the key factors that promote DNA repair, with the aim of understanding exactly how damaged chromosomes are fixed. “Once we know the detailed mechanism of repair it becomes possible to see why things don’t work properly and try to manipulate this knowledge to provide cures,” he says.
This work has been integral in accelerating understanding of the BRCA2 gene in inheritable breast, prostate and ovarian cancers – a genetic defect that puts people at a higher risk of developing these diseases.
Knowledge of the way that the recombination repair process works has also underpinned the development of new drugs that can be used to treat individuals with ovarian and breast cancers.
Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick, said: “Many congratulations to Steve on this well-deserved award. He has long been a leader in his field, and his many research contributions have offered new insights into how DNA is repaired in our cells and the connection to cancer when it goes wrong. His work is a great example of how developing detailed understanding of biological processes can point us towards new ways to prevent and treat human disease.”
Steve's career began in the late 1970s at Newcastle University, where he earned his PhD in biochemistry, before moving to Yale University in the USA. It was at Yale where he worked with one of the early pioneers in the field of DNA repair, Professor Paul Howard-Flanders.
Steve moved back to the UK in 1985 to set up his own laboratory at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s Clare Hall Laboratories, which later became part of the Crick.
It was Tomas Lindahl, Nobel Laureate and Crick emeritus scientist, who appointed Steve as a head of a laboratory at Clare Hall. He says: “Steve has made major and unique contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms of genetic recombination – a key biological process that is important in repairing damaged DNA in our cells. He discovered the factors that allow for DNA strand separation and resolution of recombination intermediates, and provided a functional link between human ageing and malignant disease.”
The award will be presented to Steve at this year’s National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool on Monday 7 November.