Prof Sir John Burn

Photo credit: @CaPP3

Photo credit: @CaPP3

Aspirin. To you or me, it’s a common painkiller that gets rid of a headache. But to Professor Sir John Burn and his colleagues it’s an ongoing object of investigation in the fight against cancer.

Over the past few years you may have read advice that daily doses of aspirin (2 pills) can lower an individual’s chances of developing bowel cancer. Firstly, this advice was directed towards people with ‘Lynch Syndrome’ – a condition that means their bodies are less able to find and repair damaged DNA. DNA replication happens more often in body parts such as the bowel and womb, therefore sufferers are at a higher risk of cancer in those areas. More recently, this advice has been extended to everyone between the ages of 50 and 65.

It isn’t clear exactly how aspirin helps to prevent cancer. One suggestion is that it uses its anti-inflammatory properties; it’s also possible that it acts directly to avert the cell proliferation that is characteristic in cancer, by activating an ‘enzyme’ (a biological catalyst) that regulates the speed of cell growth, amongst other things. It is also possible that its anti-clotting effects may help, as it has been suggested that platelets (blood cells that form clots) shield cancerous cells.

The research team behind these studies was large, but headed up by one Professor Sir John Burn.

Born and raised in County Durham, Prof. Burn has spent much of his life in the north east of England. He studied medicine at Newcastle University, spending a year gaining a genetics degree – an area his instinct told him would be rich for investigation in the future.

Initially, Burn worked as a paediatrician in Newcastle, but was drawn to London to pick up where he left off with genetics. He became a clinical scientific officer for the Institute of Child Health (research partner of Great Ormond Street Hospital) but returned to Newcastle four years later, along with his expertise in clinical genetics. He became the first clinical geneticist in the north east when he set up his own clinic at the Royal Victoria Infirmary.

I knew it was a field which was only going to get bigger

This proved a successful venture, starting off by diagnosing genetic conditions in children – but there were no cures available for successful diagnoses. Burn and his colleagues turned their focus to the genetics of cancer, which eventually led to the study I talked about earlier.

But that’s not his only achievement. He and his team were involved in the research into spina bifida, culminating in the discovery that folic acid supplements during pregnancy can prevent the disease in newborns. He also found the genetic basis for a condition called neuroferritinopathy (it presents with similar symptoms to Huntington’s disease).

A lasting legacy of his can be found in Times Square, Newcastle: the Centre for Life. This is an innovative “science village” incorporating space for science research and business, as well as a science centre that provides workshops for school groups and hosts various exhibitions.

I think the future of UK genetics is in safe hands!


This article was written as part of the ‘Biology: Changing the World‘ project for the Society of Biology, but heavily edited and not accredited.

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