Exceptional childhood cancer researcher wins Foulkes Foundation 2023 prize

Professor Sam Behjati, a paediatrician scientist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and University of Cambridge has won the 2023 Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal.

The award recognises his impactful work in transforming our understanding of how childhood cancers develop and for delivering state-of-the-art cancer diagnostics for children throughout the UK.

The Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal is awarded biennially to a rising star within biomedical research for contributing important and significant impacts to the field before, or in, their first independent position.

Professor Behjati works in the NHS as a practising consultant and leads a research group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and is a Clinical Professor of Paediatric Oncology at the University of Cambridge.

In his clinical research role, Professor Behjati ensures that every child with a solid tumour in the region can have a test called whole genome sequencing. This provides patients with a quicker and more precise diagnosis and more targeted therapies than other methods, which enables the clinical team to provide tailored treatment to each child.

At the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Professor Behjati’s research is unravelling the identity and origin of cancer cells, specifically childhood cancer, with the aim of finding new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer, and identifying those at high risk of developing the disease.

He uses cutting edge genetic- and data analysis techniques to understand normal human development at a cellular level and how changes in cell DNA drive cancer growth and survival, deepening our understanding of how cancer develops and progresses.

Initially, Professor Behjati’s work focused on the childhood kidney cancer, Wilms tumour, but his approach of comparing cancer cells to normal cells provides a blueprint for unlocking the origins of childhood cancers more generally, and even other diseases. Recently, his team used the same method to study the development of placental tissue and their findings could improve our understanding of pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia.

On receiving the award, Professor Sam Behjati, said: “I am most delighted and honoured to receive the Foulkes Medal as a recognition of not only my science, but of my wonderful team, colleagues, and collaborators who enable my work. I would also like to acknowledge the generosity of participating children and families – without them my research would not be possible.”   

Mrs Maureen Foulkes-Hajdu, Executive Chairman of the Foulkes Foundation, said: “It gives me great pleasure to present the 2023 Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal to Professor Sam Behjati for his impactful work on improving our understanding and diagnosis of childhood cancer. Sam is working at the forefront of how we can use genetics to increase our knowledge of childhood cancers and how they develop, which is bringing direct benefits into the clinic. He epitomises the ethos of the Foundation by marrying science and medicine for the benefit of mankind, and we look forward to welcoming him into our “family” of Fellows.”

Professor Paul Stewart FMedSci, Acting President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “The Medal recognises outstanding achievements of innovative biomedical researchers in the early years of their career. This year’s winner, Professor Sam Behjati, demonstrates the real value and positive impact that clinical researchers have on the lives of patients while also advancing the field of biomedical research. His depth of knowledge of childhood cancer and how this translates into more personalised treatments for his patients is inspirational and I congratulate him on this richly deserved award.”

Professor Sam Behjati will receive the Medal, along with a monetary award, at the Academy of Medical Sciences' Annual General Meeting on 5 December 2023 where he will also deliver a lecture.

The Foulkes Foundation was established in 1972 by Dr Ernest Foulkes CBE HonMD HonFRCP, with the aim of promoting medical research, the training of scientists and the study of medicine. The Foulkes Foundation Medal has been awarded biennially since 2007.

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