Man of science

Professor John Darling becomes the University of Wolverhampton’s Dean of the School of Applied Sciences (SAS) on July 1. John is a leading figure in his field of brain tumour research, pioneering new discoveries in the fight against cancer. Here he discusses his career so far and what the future holds.
Brain tumours have been referred to as a ‘Cinderella Cancer’, as the area receives very little research funding. But brain cancer deaths among children exceed those of leukaemia, making it the highest cause of death among this age group after accidents. This fact is something that Professor John Darling is well aware of – and keen to change.
John is one of the leading figures in the field of brain tumour research in the UK and his current work focuses on how brain tumours start and why they are so resistant to therapy. He believes that understanding these factors is the key to the future treatment of the disease.

Exciting times for tumour research

“For the first time in my experience, there are a number of new drugs coming forward which show real promise for people with brain tumours. It is a really exciting time because we will see the scientific findings having significant benefit to patients with malignant tumours,” he says.
The disease has not been subject to the same level of interest or funding as leukaemia, breast or colon cancer but things are changing in the arena of cancer research. John is one of only a few people in the UK currently working on brain tumours, but he is optimistic for the future of research.
“It is an area for enormous growth and people are taking brain tumours more seriously now. There is an acceptance at Government level that we have not had the same level of research effort as some other cancers.”
John originally became involved in brain tumour research at the Institute for Neurology in London, where he worked for 23 years. He joined the University of Wolverhampton as a Professor of Biomedical Science in October 2001. He was appointed the founder Director of the University’s Research Institute in Healthcare Sciences (RIHS) in October 2003, a post he held until his recent appointment as the Dean of the School of Applied Sciences following the retirement of Professor Patrick Robotham.

A distinguished record

John is very enthusiastic about his career at Wolverhampton so far, especially the collaborations that exist across the University.
“I have really enjoyed being able to work with a whole range of colleagues from different academic Schools. There is a receptive and co-operative culture and people are always happy to sit down and talk to you about what they have done. I think the hallmark of Wolverhampton is that it is very welcoming and has a collegiate feel.”
He is also proud of the achievements of RIHS, which he has watched grow and flourish. John attributes this success to the talents of the people that have taken an interest in the Research Institute across the board. He believes this more rounded approach to working would have been difficult to achieve in some other institutions.
Another area of great pride for John is the creation of Brain Tumour North West, a collaboration between universities and health trusts to work together on ground breaking brain tumour research. Wolverhampton was a founder member and a number of universities have now signed up to the innovative project including Keele, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire, with others, such as the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield also looking to join.

'Something of lasting value'

The novel collaboration aims to advance research in the area by opening access to rare tumour material, sharing laboratory facilities and techniques, as well as pooling scientific, medical and statistical expertise. The pioneering scheme breaks down traditional boundaries between institutions, recognising that shared knowledge, experience and
resources can be the most effective way of achieving results.
John says: “I think we have developed something of lasting value in the general North West region which I think will have tangible benefits for patients with brain tumours. I have also enjoyed working with the brain tumour community on this, as it involves not only doctors, researchers and specialists, but also charities such as Brain Tumour UK and the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust.”
Although his new post as Dean will be filled with new challenges, John is also determined to continue his research commitments. “This is not just an intellectual pursuit for a scientist. It is something of significant social importance,” he says.
And John is clearly keen to get to grips with his new role. The School teaches a range of undergraduate and postgraduate subjects including forensic science, microbiology, biochemistry and clinical psychology.
One thing John is keen to do is illustrate to people from outside the University the importance of science for everyone. He believes hosting exhibitions to explain the work going on within the University and visits from schools, colleges and citizens of Wolverhampton and the wider region would be a good way of developing public understanding.
“I want to think of ways of engaging citizens and showing people how science can affect their lives for the better,” he says.
“I hope I can take the School from a sound position to a new level. I think the future is in applied research, which is aimed very clearly at nearer market opportunities, by which I mean things that will benefit people in less than five years. I really believe the School of Applied Sciences will be one of the very best of its kind in the UK. With the planned moved to a new purpose-built building and new staff coming in because of the new awards we are teaching, this is a very exciting time to be part of SAS.”