Partners pushing medicine’s frontiers

Partners pushing medicine’s frontiers

Ian Halstead met up with Professor Charlie Craddock, the co-founder of Cure Leukaemia, and its best-known fund-raiser, the ex-England international Geoff Thomas.

The world of social media can be a dark and dangerous place for the unwary but it’s also a remarkable storehouse of knowledge. Peeking at the individuals and organisations someone chooses to ‘follow’, for example, offers an intriguing insight into their perceptions and pastimes.

Charlie Craddock’s Twitter flock includes the Berlin Philharmonic, the RSPB, the Poetry Archive, the AGA cook-shop and a weekly radio programme on ‘early music’ broadcast from Indiana, suggesting an eclectic mind … and someone who’d be grand company on a long train journey. However, his multitude of professional ‘follows’ indicates this is also someone who lives and breathes their chosen profession. Which is immensely fortunate for Geoff, and many other victims of blood cancer, who would long since have breathed their last, but for the innovative treatments and drugs developed by Craddock, with his researchers and nurses at Cure Leukaemia and Birmingham’s Centre for Clinical Haematology (CCH).

Thomas was a combative midfielder who blossomed at Crewe, before moving on to captain Crystal Palace in an FA Cup final, and notching up time with Forest and Wolves. Nine caps for England were a reward for tenacity and dedication, both qualities needed in abundance not long after his football career ended. “I was only 37, in 2003, when I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, chronic myeloid leukaemia, and told it was incurable without a stem cell transport.

“I’d had spells when I was exhausted, and had been losing weight, but put it down to starting full-time work. Fortunately my wife, Julie, persuaded me to visit my GP, and six hours after he did his tests, he rang with the news.

“I’d always been very fit, which seemed to give me some chance, and had suffered injuries late in my career, which had built up mental toughness. Saying that, my white blood cell was over 200, and should have been between seven and 11.

“My doctor referred me to the QE hospital, and I met Charlie. At first, they thought I might only live three months, but Charlie got my white cell count down, and they thought I might live for three years.

“Coincidentally though, Charlie and Graham Silk had just founded Cure Leukaemia, to allow patients with blood cancer access to the latest drugs. Luckily too, my sister Kay was a perfect match for the transplant, but there were still months of treatment, and at one point, I was in isolation for five weeks, because my immune system wasn’t functioning.

“I was very lucky, as I still remind myself. Julie and Charlie were brilliant, the new drugs worked and after 18 very tough months, I was in remission.” The deep bond he developed with Craddock is evident, but it’s the relationships Thomas built with cancer victims who were less fortunate which still cast a shadow. “Every time you met someone, you knew some wouldn’t survive, and the memories of those who lost their battles is still with me,” he says.

Geoff ThomasMuch of his time is now spent raising funds for Cure Leukaemia and the blood cancer charity, Bloodwise and speaking to a wide array of audiences on cancer issues. In 2005, Thomas raised £250,000 by cycling 2,200 miles to Paris, two days ahead of the Tour de France, and ten years on decided to repeat the feat by leading a team of amateur cyclists along all 21 stages of the route to the French capital.

“Charlie had already proved that his new model worked. Better research and better use of data was giving pharma firms the certainty they needed to invest in new drugs, and in return they freely gave their drugs back to the QE to treat more patients,” says Thomas-and his passion is almost overwhelming.

“It was a business model which saved lives, but we still needed more research nurses to release the wealth of knowledge and data from inside the NHS. We wanted to take luck out of the equation, so blood cancers could be tackled with precision through innovative drugs and treatments.

”Raising £1m would enable patients at the QE to ultimately benefit from £10m of the latest drugs, but which would cost the NHS nothing.

“On 19 May, we’re off again on the same route, but to coincide with Euro 2016. Yes, we hope to raise a significant amount of money again, but we’re also aiming to tell everyone that Birmingham is a world-class centre for blood cancer, and that Charlie and his fabulous team are doing amazing life-saving work.”

As Thomas then strode away with purposeful gait, Craddock took up the story of how Birmingham became a global centre for the diagnosis and treatment of blood cancers. He arrived with an international reputation; studying medicine at Oxford University, completing post-grad research in haematology at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, then returning to Oxford’s Institute of Molecular Medicine, before working at a cancer research centre at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

In 1999, he was appointed director of the QE’s blood and marrow transplant unit, and five years later was appointed to the newly-created Chair of Haematology at the University of Birmingham.

“I came here because I saw a great opportunity to make a difference,” says Craddock. “Now we understand the biology of cancer so much better, have better clinical trials and better access to data, we are having better outcomes for patients. We have built up the expertise and reputation of our bone marrow unit, until we are one of the top two in the UK, and can now give patients access to drugs and treatments which are not readily available via the NHS.

“As we developed our model, we realised that it was scalable, so we could do it for diseases which affected the kidney, the heart and other parts of the body. The trials and the tests which are happening at the QE have genuinely become a test-bed for the world.

”We have evolved a great infrastructure, working not just with pharma, but with colleges here and overseas to drive new treatments, and are leading several Europe-wide trials. Now the Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) is open, we are on track to replicate what we have done for blood cancer, for other diseases.

“Already, we have more than halved the time it takes to set up and run a clinical trial, which is very appealing to the venture capitalists, the private equity houses and other investors who are needed to back the research.”

Craddock is though typically self-effacing about his own role. “Many people have been involved. Steve Hollis (deputy chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP) is a great facilitator with the ability to pull people together, David Eastwood (vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham) and Julie Moore (chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust) provide great leadership. The support we have received from our institutions and their staff has also been tremendous, but the real heroes are the patients, and our incredibly generous supporters who contribute to Cure Leukaemia.

“We are at a new frontier for medicine, but everything we do is based on a partnership model. It’s never just about the efforts of one or two individuals.”