Cairncross, Dr. Gregory

2012 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Groundbreaking Discovery Causes Significant Advances In Cancer Research

Throughout his career Dr. Cairncross has displayed a remarkable capacity to reach out to major research leaders in diverse fields to make significant advances in brain tumour biology and therapy.

The Power of Collaboration

“My approach is to seek out the top person in a science or technology field that pertains to  the question I’m asking,” Dr. Cairncross says. “We join forces to answer those questions; then for the next question, I seek other partners that have the specific skills to answer that one. And it continues.”

The recently retired Head of the Clinical Neurosciences Department at the University of Calgary attributes his successful 25-year research career to his collaborators, the names of which are too numerous to mention. During that time he has become recognized by his peers as one of the true pioneers of modern neuro-oncology.

When Inspiration Struck

Dr. Cairncross recalls the day and the patient that inspired him on the path to becoming an internationally regarded researcher who has doubled the lifespan of people living with brain cancer and was elected to Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his significant contributions to brain cancer research. Prior to that day the young doctor was focussed on practising medicine.

“Something interesting happened to my patient when I gave him simple chemotherapy — his cancer vanished,” he says. “That sparked my interest in science. I wanted to know why that happened. That has been the work I’ve pursued ever since, and is the seed of my most important discovery.”

This seed led to initial research that discovered that patients with oligodendroglioma — a kind of brain cancer — responded to chemotherapy. During an era when treating brain tumours with chemotherapy was considered hopeless, Dr. Cairncross gave hope to patients with brain cancers that long-term disease control was achievable and cure was also possible.

“It is deeply satisfying for me to be able to make a contribution that has helped people with a cancer problem that struck them in prime of life without any reason,” he says.

Doubling the Survival RateI

Always motivated to contribute more and driven by the idea that more could be discovered, Dr. Cairncross continued his questioning.  He pioneered a line of research that led to aids in the diagnosis of oligodendroglioma and a treatment program that doubles the survival of patients with the cancer from 7 years to 15 years.

“It took us 20 years to do the clinical trial,” he says, chuckling about that the next trials that could take a quarter century if the science continues to improve. “Our incredible success has brought its own challenges.”

Dr. Cairncross also leads an $8-million Terry Fox Research Institute drug discovery program for brain cancer; and in collaboration with Dr. Samuel Weiss he has co-developed a major brain tumour stem cell core facility in Calgary. And he has left a legacy of individuals committed to delivering and improving the care of patients with brain tumours through his roles as supervisor mentor and a clinical teacher to radiation oncologists, neurosurgeons, neurologists and medical oncologists.