An interview with: Dr Stuart Griffiths, Director of Research & Services at Yorkshire Cancer Research

Dr Stuart Griffiths is the current Director of Research & Services at Yorkshire Cancer Research. Previously, Stuart has worked as the Assistant Director of Research & Strategy at Breast Cancer Now, and Head of Strategy & Initiatives at the National Cancer Research Institute. Stuart holds a PhD from the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute.

Yorkshire Cancer Research has a mission, a vision, a goal and three strategic aims. How will you judge whether your tenure as Director of Research & Services has been a success?

The goal is to reduce the number of deaths in Yorkshire by 2,000 per year by 2025, and we do that through work on prevention, early diagnosis and improving treatment. If we can get to 2025 with 2000 fewer cancer deaths, then I shall be very pleased. That’s the ultimate thing to point to. Our aim to reduce the number of deaths by 2,000 came about in 2015 when we updated our strategy. When we compared the CCGs with the lowest cancer incidence and lowest mortality and scaled those up to the size of Yorkshire, we realised there would be 2,000 fewer cancer deaths per year across the region. Cancer Research UK had published a paper looking at the projected incidence for cancers across the whole of the UK which allowed us to look at what might happen up to 2025 in Yorkshire. We can keep track against those projections of what happens in reality. Otherwise, I hope I’ll leave behind a strong team to carry on our research and continue to improve our patient involvement work which has been a big drive for me.

You have given substantial funding to research teams outside of Yorkshire. Would you have preferred for all the funds to have remained in Yorkshire? Would you hope to see stronger links between investigators outside of Yorkshire and institutions within Yorkshire?

The blunt answer to the first question is no. We don’t mind where the money goes, so long as we’re generating improvements and working directly towards those 2,000 fewer cancer deaths in Yorkshire. As for bringing great expertise in, there’s great expertise in Yorkshire that can be exported, and great expertise across the UK which can be imported. We’ve seen some great collaborations forming across individuals and institutions, which are invaluable. Science isn’t just one team, in one place, doing one thing.

What do you think the future holds for cancer screening? What have you got on your horizon?

We’re very interested in cancer screening in our current and developing programmes. Currently, we’ve got the Yorkshire Lung Cancer Screening Trial which is our first RCT on lung cancer screening for those at high risk of lung cancer. This is where the future is heading – targeted screening or targeted health checks. Essentially, risk-adapted screening. I think people forget that the current screening programmes are already risk-adapted screening, e.g. breast screening is targeted for women, bowel screening is age-based. With lung screening, what’s interesting is that we’re starting to look to almost create a one-stop-shop for screening – so we could look at kidney screening next perhaps at the same time as scanning the lungs. Ultimately, we’re taking the approach of ‘If you’re going to dig up the road, you might as well fix everything at once!’. You can see this in the lung cancer screening trial, we’ve got smoking cessation advisor embedded into the work, so for these people who have made an active decision in their health- choosing to come to screening- we can look at how else we can improve their health while they’re there. Otherwise, the holy grail is a blood test to detect cancer, which I believe the NHS has announced a pilot of such a blood test recently. With screening, we also need to realise that it isn’t always the new and the shiny stuff that works- it can just be helping people to engage with the current programmes because they work. An important issue, however, is that we need to be careful with overtreatment and overdiagnosis. If we don’t manage those issues, the value of the screening programme is reduced.

How has COVID changed the way you work?

It was quite a difficult time back for everyone in March. We had three priorities: one was to look after staff and make sure they were supported. Secondly, we needed to manage the risks with all the research we were funding. The third thing was to support the researchers we were working with. Ultimately as Director of Research, I had to ensure the money which has been so kindly donated to us was being used appropriately. Over the coming months, we worked hard to figure out which research could carry on, which could continue at a slower pace, and where we had to stop funding even if temporarily – for example, if a project could no longer recruit patients. I’m pleased the vast majority of our funded research is now back up and running in some shape or form.

How do you feel COVID has changed the public’s attitude to disease prevention?

What it shows is that human beings can respond well to an acute threat. Everyone responded really well during the first lockdown, and it seems like everyone has become an amateur epidemiologist- in a good way- as more people who understand the science can only really be a good thing. However, I doubt people will equate COVID to cancer when thinking about disease prevention. One is immediate, and you can see the results of any action- so going into lockdown reduced COVID rates. If you increase the amount you exercise or reduce your red meat intake you won’t see any immediate effect in terms of cancer prevention. The vaccines have been a great advert for medical collaboration. You’ve got collaboration between academia, the original research on coronavirus, you’ve got research funders, the public taking part in clinical trials, and the private sector able to manufacture and test these vaccines in such large quantities. Without any one of those groups, the whole thing wouldn’t have worked. It’s a shame that there hasn’t been more support for medical research charities- the sector has seen a dramatic fall in income, and we are seeing some immediate impact, such as fewer patients have the opportunity to benefit from being involved in a clinical trial, and we’ll see the impact continue in the future when research that should have happened hasn’t.

Quick fire questions  
Screening or therapeutic prevention? Am I allowed to say it depends? It depends on which cancer you’re talking about. If I had to pick one- I’d probably say screening.
Football or Rugby league?


Football! Being from Liverpool I support Liverpool Football Club. (Not sure I should admit to that when I work in Yorkshire…!)
The Crown or the Queen’s Gambit? The Queen’s Gambit. (I’d love to be good at Chess!)

The views expressed are those of the author. Posting of the blog does not signify that the Cancer Prevention Group endorse those views or opinions.

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