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Professor Colin Cooper

Medicine Needs More Mathematicians

Medical research needs more mathematicians and computer scientists, eminent cancer researcher Professor Colin Cooper told the audience at this month’s UEA Teachers Conference.

Prof Cooper’s work with genome technology, as Professor of Cancer Genetics at Norwich Medical School, sees him handling some astronomical numbers. There are 100 million million cells in a human body, and all the DNA in your body would, if pulled out in a single string, stretch to the sun and back 25 times. With all those cells and all that DNA, Prof Cooper said the chance of cancer developing in one cell “is like winning the lottery two weeks in a row. It’s just that you have 100 trillion tickets.”

So the ever-increasing power of computers is bringing real benefits to the fight against cancer, alongside other technological advances. Prof Cooper referred to a 1996 episode of Star Trek Voyager (called Tuvix, for those who are interested), in which two characters become fused together and a desktop-sized genome sequencing machine is used to help untangle them. But real-life science has eclipsed Star Trek.

“The first genome cost $2 billion to decode,” Prof Cooper said. “Now it costs about $2000, and we use machines that are like USB sticks.”

Better than Star Trek: the USB stick-sized genome sequencing machine described by Professor Colin Cooper

The genome record of just one person fills 70 DVDs with data. Someone has to help process and interpret all that data, and today’s maths and computing students could, in the future, find themselves on the front line against disease.

“We are on the cusp of a revolution in cancer care,” Prof Cooper said, explaining that all that data is revealing the factors behind different cancers like never before. “Genome technology means drugs can be developed to target specific mutations.”

Prof Cooper has researched many different cancers over his career, and prostate cancer is currently in his sights. Talking about this research, he amused the audience with an illustration of the sometimes curious ways in which scientific inquiry can go.

“We are doing a study on broccoli and prostate cancer, ” he said. “I have 10,000 portions of frozen broccoli soup in a warehouse in Lincolnshire.”

In her presentation to the Teachers’ Conference later in the day, Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, also stressed that making a contribution to medicine wasn’t just the preserve of doctors. She said: “You don’t need to do medicine. Think about what we heard from Colin Cooper: there are lots of people doing clever stuff in medicine who are not doctors.”

Prof Cooper had encouraging words for those who share his own curiosity. His career, he told the audience, didn’t stem from some kind of natural gift. “It was more to do with being fanatical and focused. I was simply interested in what’s causing cancer. I thought slowly, but I thought things through.”

So medical research is defying stereotypes, and students shouldn’t be put off just because they don’t fit the lab-coated image of the quick-thinking medical genius.

“It’s not the speed, or being bright,” Prof Cooper insisted. “I was the slow kid, and people laughed at me for being slow.”


Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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