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Professor Alan Clarke 1963 – 2015

We recently learnt of the sudden and untimely death of the world renowned scientist Professor Alan Clarke, a close friend of Worldwide Cancer Research.

Professor Clarke was based at Cardiff University where he was Director of the European Cancer Stem Cell Institute, Director of Research in the School of Biosciences and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cardiff Centre.  His work focussed on using mouse models to understand the role of cancer stem cells in how cancer begins, with a particular interest in bowel, breast and prostate cancer.

Professor Clarke served as a member of our Scientific Committee for four years from 2005 to 2008. He was then chosen to chair the committee for a further 4 years until 2012.  “Alan was a clear choice to be Chair due to his unique breadth of knowledge in cancer research, his fair and decisive manner and no-nonsense attitude when it came to ensuring committee members made the tough decisions required.” explains Dr Helen Rippon, Director of Research at Worldwide Cancer Research.

Our current Scientific Committee chair, Professor Harry Vrieling, from Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, told us “I am terribly shocked by this very sad news. Alan was a great guy, an outstanding scientist and the best chair that Worldwide Cancer Research could ever wish for. He will be sorely missed.”

As well as being an outstanding leader of our scientific committee, Alan also held 5 grants with us over the years, including his current project studying PTEN mutations in bowel cancer. One of the most high profile outcomes of these grants came when we funded him to test olaparib in a new mouse model of breast cancer. His work supported the case for using olaparib in cancers with BRCA mutations and helped olaparib on its way to clinical trials.  Olaparib was recently approved by NICE for the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer.

“Alan was extremely bright and very laid back, he always took everything in his stride.  Despite being extremely busy he helped with our fundraising events, including travelling to Jersey to talk to supporters.  He never used a mobile phone as he said if people really needed him, they would find a way to make contact.  He was also a firm believer that a t-shirt was suitable attire, no matter how formal the event.” says Debbie Wheelans, Grant Manager Post-Awards at Worldwide Cancer Research, who worked particularly closely with Alan during his time on the committee.

“One of my strongest memories is of Alan with the other committee members reflecting on the day’s grant awards meeting in the bar over a glass of Lagavulin, always in a t-shirt and jeans.”

Tributes and condolences have been pouring in from friends, colleagues and previous committee members including Dr Simon Cook from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. “This is awful news. Alan was a marvellous scientist, a friend and mentor to many and a great friend to Worldwide Cancer Research.  He will indeed be sorely missed by many – myself included.”  Professor Peter Lichter from the University of Heidelberg added “This is more than a tragic loss.  Alan has been one of our true heroes.”

Professor Margaret Frame, Science Director at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre, previously worked with Professor Clarke at the University of Edinburgh.  Professor Frame also chaired the Scientific Committee prior to Professor Clarke taking over they remained good friends over the years.  “Alan Clarke was a gem.” She told us.  “A gentleman and a gentle man, but an immensely smart, fast-thinking and quick witted scientist – right out of the top drawer. However, for me, Alan was defined by the fun and laughs that many of us shared with him on so many occasions after we had been intensely discussing and considering the most serious of subjects dear to all of us – cancer research and how to make a difference for patients. Alan did just that at so many levels – it is so tragic that his outstanding contributions were cut short.”

Professor Owen Sansom from the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow also had a long standing relationship with Professor Clarke and they frequently collaborated on projects. “I remember starting my PhD with Alan and one of the other students had mistaken him for a cleaner, but that was Alan. Alan had no time for any political nonsense and was quite simply a fantastic scientist who had real insight into very important scientific questions.  He performed key work on TP53, RB and APC and made enormous impact in these hotly competitive fields. But more than that Alan was a great person and mentor. Everybody liked Alan and his passing will affect a great many people who worked with, and knew him over the years. He will be sorely missed.”

We are shocked and extremely sad at the loss of Professor Alan Clarke; a man who devoted his time, effort and enormous intellect to helping other people.  We send our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. Without Alan’s contribution, the cancer research community is disadvantaged and, as a thoroughly nice man, he will be missed dreadfully.

Photograph kindly provided by Cardiff University.