Professor Gordon McVie is widely regarded as a leading international authority in the research and treatment of cancer. However, despite being the recipient of numerous awards, bearing honorary doctorates from five universities, being made a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and co-establishing and running the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC), UK, he attributes his successes to "not being much good at anything at school, not getting on with Robin Cook who was in my chemistry class and although was irritating was so clever he made the rest of us look thick, and an overriding desire to become a farmer being stamped out because the number of male progeny in my family was high (infact statistically peverse)."
With laconic self-awareness, Professor McVie will is refreshingly approachable. We talk while he is recovering from a cataract operation ("honestly, I'm fine, I'm bored, I'm waiting for my Italian tutor – I can't bloody read anything anyway...!") where he honestly describes how he muddled through his Grammar "being average" before being advised that his "mediocrity would likely make him a good GP". Seeing medicine as an "easy exit-strategy from a school that I hated" he trundled off to Edinburgh Medical School where he suddenly found his passion when a pathologist offered him a year-out, mid-course, to complete a science degree. Once he "found the library" his enthusiasm to investigate disease, find root causes of illnesses and motivate others to join him in the journey to seek answers was switched on. And so began the lifelong dedication to oncological research. Like Hannibal, Professor McVie is of determined – we will either find a way or make one – spirit and if that means he has to deliberate, cogitate and agitate along the way then that's exactly what he will do.
Perhaps it was that original script of being told you were average that engendered the underlying sense of prevailing courage in Professor McVie's work (where a fear-of-failure so often limits those believed to have great potential)? He still exerts that 'nothing to lose' cavalier approach, which can alienate and activate others in equal measure but in terms of 'results' has bred a long-line of scientific successes. Under his aegis at the CRC for example, he took over eighty molecules from the laboratory into clinical trial. His major 'known' contributions are the establishment of loco-regional routes of delivering chemotherapy.
Indeed, Professor McVie has never been afraid to mark his own path; at 31 he was the youngest and only specialist oncologist in Scotland and in 1969 his research into the pathology and 'cure' of Hodgkins disease finally meant the label of average could be snipped off. Alongside Ken Common, and Sir Derrick Dunlop (the first Chairman of the UK Medicines Safety Committee) he set up the only Glasgow Unit for oncology research ("a portacabin atop the hospital") then five years later left to establish a center for new-drugs research in Holland. Professor McVie still recalls the day he walked into the unit and "there were 12 beds, completely reserved for cancer drugs research – and a lab too!". Once again, that sense of curiosity was switched on. Now in his 60s, Professor McVie no longer works out of "a shed on a roof" but has held prestigious posts such as Clinical Research Director at the National Cancer Institute of the Netherlands in the 80s, Co-Founder and President of the European Organisation for Treatment and Research into Cancer (EORTC), New Drug Development Office, Architect of the Cancer Trials Networks in Scotland, Wales, and England, and Founding Member of the National Cancer Research Institute. Today, he is Visiting Professor in Medicine at Glasgow University, in Scotland, and at the Welsh Cancer Institute, Cardiff and spends over half of his time at the European Institute of Oncology (IEO) in Milan, where he is responsible for Clinical Research Coordination, Strategy and International Affairs. Asked why he doesn't put his feet up and what still motivates him and you are met with a verbal (friendly) slap — "my boss is 82 and still operates ... and I remain dissatisfied with the outcomes of cancer treatments for patients ... complacency is the enemy of curioristy!"
Curiosity and determination are the hallmarks of Professor McVie's approach which also permits him to be commendably outspoken about the pomposity of the medical research community and academics who like to dismiss the value of collaborating with the pharmaceutical industry. You can read his full opinion on alliances with industry on www.ecancermedicalscience.com (the online open-access cancer journal that he set up with the European Institute of Oncology). Professor McVie asserts that"... it must be remembered that many of the advanced life changing drugs which we take for granted nowadays would not exist without the huge capital reserves offered by large multinationals. Without their cutting-edge research in many cases we wouldn't have breakthroughs in cancer or heart disease which allow us to live longer happier lives." He scoffs at the sanctimony of the anti-industry cult who he suggests are "probably bitter because they were rejected for jobs in the industry who have extremely high standards!". Recalling his "Terrific Temodal Adventure" he commends Schering Plough in particular for "being prepared to take on a molecule when they really had no track record in oncology but believed us so took the risk to develop the product". (You can read more about this in the 'Great Collaborations' section.). He also speaks highly of "absolutely world-class scientists who work in the industry – including Alison Ayers at Pfizer and Mike Burgess at Roche... both of whom continue to be top-fellows, responsible, committed respectable and wonderful to work with." The poor side of pharma? In Professor McVie's forthright opinion – "well, some companies can appear devious because they assume an air of subterfuge and they get a bit oversensitive about having to only publish positive data. They always seem to be on the back-foot and passive from the perspective of public relations and being faceless behind their doors."
Courage in the battle against mediocrity – if ever there was a Professor true to the ethos of myPHID and making-a-difference then we have to hand the flag over to Gordon McVie to wave!