7th March, 2012. 14.40 G.M.T.

Redress research imbalance between cancer and neurological disorders,
says former CEO of medical research council

by Helen Gavaghan


LIVERPOOL, UK: Neuroscientist and former chief executive of the UK Medical Research Council (2003 - 2007), Colin Blakemore, opened his free thinking talk on the developed world's ageing society at the University of Liverpool last night with a slide of the little mermaid. He ended with a plea to politics and people to redress the marked national imbalance in spending on research into cancer and neurological diseases.

This was one of a series of science and society lectures which the University is sponsoring.

Speaking afterwards he told me current knowledge of the brain is about the level of physics and astronomy in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Those were the days before the completed Copernican and Keplerian theortical syntheses of astronomical observations. "We just do not know how the brain works," he said.

I asked if the research questions could even be asked now, or whether there was a need to wait 30 years before enough was known to articulate meaningfully the hypotheses relevant to neurological disorders and how the healthy brain works. He said the questions could be asked now.

Introducing the lecture the University's spokesperson reminded the audience of Professor Blakemore's pioneering work on the brain and vision, that he had been the youngest ever Reith lecturer, and said that as the MRC's chief executive Professor Blakemore had encouraged young scientists undertaking basic research, whilst keeping sight of the significance of translational medicine.

Message in a

This was a public lecture. I met people who were there out of curiosity, as well as Liverpool University alumni from zoology, botany and chemistry. A remark from a couple of masters students in social science from the University of Bradford highlighted the freethinking aspect of the talk. For example, Professor Blakemore argued as one option that people could earn the most salary in mid career, when the individual most needed the money, rather than aged over 55 when one has reached the august level of, say, vice chancellor.

Many in the audience were seasoned scientists attending a conference on motor neurone disease. I heard a couple behind me ask one another if they'd understood the presentations they'd heard that afternoon. During questions and answers another scientist speculated that the business model for big pharma was broken.

The theme Professor Blakemore explored was that the demographic shift resulting from longer lifespans associated with better diet and medicine brought expensive and disabling diseases to the fore. Strokes are the second leading cause of death, he said. It was those observations which underpinned the free thinking part of his talk about working life time, pension age and distribution of income with age. All the free thinking being outside his own skill base, but nevertheless interesting to his audience.

From within his own skill and knowledge sets he spoke of the brain's uniqueness as a biological organ, and its limited regenerative capacity, as currently known.

"Every year nearly twice as many people are diagnosed with neurological disorders as with cancer. We need a robust and co-ordinated approach to neurological research if we are to address the impending neurological time bomb. Action is a necessity," he said, "not a choice."