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The scientists who saved thousands

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  • The scientists who saved thousands

    By Dr David Gregory
    BBC News, Birmingham

    Aston University in the 1970s did not have a reputation as a glamorous place to do scientific research.

    "The university on the roundabout in a drab concrete city," was how one former academic described it.

    And yet a team of researchers working in this apparently grim environment produced a scientific breakthrough that revolutionised the fight against brain cancer, saving thousands of lives.

    This week, the team behind this breakthrough gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary.
    In a Birmingham reborn, Aston University has also changed. The scientists gathered to celebrate in the campus' newest building, all glowing blue walls and departure-lounge furniture.

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    Thirty years ago when student Robert Stone walked into that lab the team he was joining was like a small drug company in many respects.

    On his first day, he was simply told "go and make some interesting molecules" and that is what he did.

    He said: "At the start things went quite badly. So after a while we refocused and tried a new direction."

    And that's when he created a very, very interesting molecule - Temozolomide.
    A molecule that had a huge effect on cancer tumours. He continued: "While writing up my PhD thesis, when I got to the section where I reported the anti-tumour activity I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn't dreaming."

    At first Temozolomide was not considered the best candidate for a new anti-cancer drug. But rival compounds did not survive the clinical trials.

    Eventually it became a new and very effective treatment to combat brain cancer - Temodal.

    The work was not sponsored by government or a big drug company.

    Every penny came from what was then called the Cancer Research Campaign.
    Former director Gordon McVie said the work was supported "by you, by me, by people who stand on the street corners collecting".

    At the anniversary celebrations, among the charity workers and the scientists, there was another very important guest: Alan Thomas, a patient with a brain tumour who is currently taking Temodal.

    If he looked tired, that was not due to the drug, but the result of him having a new baby at home.

    "Temodal has allowed me to get on with my life and do almost everything I want to," he said.

    Temodal will this year become a "blockbuster" drug with sales worth $1bn. A US drug company has won the right to make it.

    Temodal represents the story of how a small dedicated team, supported by charity, found a drug and a treatment that eluded both governments and the large pharmaceutical corporations.

    And as sales continue to increase, some of the profits comes back to the charity that funded Dr Robert Stone's original PhD, helping to fund even more research.

    Somewhere out there that cash could be helping another student, just starting out, on the path that will lead them to the next Temodal.

    Story from BBC NEWS:
    "The next major advancement in the health of American people will be determined by what the individual is willing to do for himself"-- John Knowles, Former President of the Rockefeller Foundation