This interview with Professor Vyvyan Howard for icon looks at his work on child cancer, and chemical toxins.
Passionate About Protecting The Future Of Our Childen
By Madeleine Kingsley
Photography by Paul Chave
"Life expectancy has gone up, and we are now living in a soup of carcinogenic influences; clearly the longer you live, the more likely these are to have an effect. Living longer is not itself the cause - it simply exposes you to the causes over a greater period."
"We need to consider all possible factors because cancer is multifactorial and multistage. There will be no magic bullet to erase it."
To babies in utero, to children and to the generations that follow us, Professor Vyvyan Howard regrets, we are leaving "an appalling chemical legacy". His particular research expertise (in toxico-pathology) is dedicated to the environmental influences of cancer on the vulnerable young and the precious unborn. It is timely work, for the chemical build-up of the past few decades is already biting hard: "Cancer is now an epidemic, and some childhood cancers have doubled in the past 30 years" says Professor Howard, "which clearly belies the argument that cancer is only increasing because we are living longer. The cause of cancer is not longevity per se; its the length of exposure to the soup of carcinogenic influences with which we now live."
The indisputable fact is, Vyvyan Howard explains, "that we have changed our environment by the introduction of radioactive particles as a consequence of testing of atomic weapons, and using nuclear power, and also by the introduction of novel chemicals and radio nucleides. We see now that some man-made chemicals are able to interfere with the cell-signalling mechanisms in the human body. The fact that these are not just single chemicals, but PCB and POP compounds in huge variation also seems to be a factor. If you disrupt the cell-signalling molecules such as hormones which control gene expression, then you can cause dysgenesis (tissue damage) at much, much lower doses. The womb is not the unassailable castle once thought."
That was my awakening to the whole new world of Persistent Organic Pollutants in the atmosphere
Professor Howard is, by training, a medically qualified pathologist, specialising in toxicology, and in particular the effect of toxic things on the foetus and infant. For 30 years, he worked at the University of Liverpool "where I assumed Id stay happily for life" he says. Here, on the Mersey, he also raised four children (now in their twenties), became principal cellist with the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra and, nearly 20 years ago, discovered a second passion beyond pure pathology - for environmental campaigning. He and his then wife tipped up for a local meeting at which they fully expected to be the only attendees. "In fact there were about 200 very angry people there, including one, who came up afterwards and introduced himself as Ralph Ryder, who runs Communities against Toxics. Ralph sent me home with four papers which I started that night, and found I was still reading in bed at 4am. That was my awakening to the whole new world of POPs or Persistent Organic Pollutants in the atmosphere."
Now an international expert on the link between environmental hazards and cancer, Vyvyan Howard strongly urges caution (the Precautionary Principle) in matters such as GM food crop trials and water fluoridation. He runs the Scientific Advisory Group of the Cancer Education Prevention Society and is President-Elect of the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE). He had the ear of Margot Wallstrom, Vice-President of the European Commission during the formulation of REACH - a much tighter policy for the licensing of new and existing chemicals - 30,000 of which are now going to have to be re-registered because they were permitted after less rigorous testing many years ago.
"We got to Mrs Wallstrom at just the right time to say, Look, if you really want this to work, weve got to aim for low enough levels to protect the most vulnerable - children and babies in utero."
You can take slices of just a couple of nannometres and see through frozen tissue
Academically, Vyvyan Howard remains best known as a world expert in microscopy. He has worked at the cutting edge of new technology that now allows bio-imaging of live or frozen tissue in 3D. For three years past he has been a Visiting Professor at The University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, which last year made him an irresistible offer to chair the Universitys new Bio-Imaging Research Group. "I couldnt refuse!" he enthuses "We have the most amazing suite of brand new electron microscopes. You can take slices of just a couple of nannometres and see through frozen tissue. Its a very exciting place to be."
Occasionally, however, Professor Howard pops back to Liverpool to rehearse and perform and to supervise his three remaining PhD students. Here he arrives for the i c o n interview all bonhomie and vigour, in a checked shirt and a rain hat, weighed down by a backpack from which extrude a large bunch of coriander, a copy of Paul Mobbs book Energy Beyond Oil, some rye flour for home breadmaking and The Guardian. From the depths of this Tardis-type pack he also retrieves his laptop, ready to illustrate his latest project. She is the enchanting two-month old Johanna Elise, his "second family" with fellow toxicologist, and vet, Dr Gesa Staats de Yanes. It emerges that the threesome are currently living on their 70 foot canal boat, whilst contemplating a more permanent Ulster home. Here the family have wintered well, warmed on driftwood they have brought aboard. "Perhaps because of the movement on the boat the baby sleeps right through the night" smiles Vyvyan Howard.
Or perhaps she is sleeping the sleep of the young and the very healthy, for Johannas parents clearly believes in minimising toxic risks. "We buy our food from a nice organic farm. Clocking up 10 fruit and veg isnt a problem when you start the day with fresh fruit salad and muesli. We use only natural home products or vinegar as a cleaning agent. We recycle everything. I drink red wine in moderation and cycle the seven miles to work. I feel so much better for the exercise; I can think harder and concentrate better. We dont use disposable nappies unless we are going out and then they are organic, bio-degradable, even though they cost a bit more." None of Johannas baby bottles are polycarbonate, made from bisphenol A: "They are glass, ordered off the internet" says the Prof, adding ruefully, "though as shes being breast-fed, our daughter is getting a dose of what weve been storing up chemically for the last two decades."
Something as seemingly small and insignificant as their position in the womb was enough to cause a lifetime and predictable difference in behaviour
Nature itself provides powerful evidence for sensitivity to pre-birth hormone disruption, as Professor Howard now graphically explains. He cites the research of Frederick von Saal, who studied the behaviour of young rats based on their prenatal position in the horn-shaped maternal uterus: "Some female rats, by sheer chance, developed between two other females, some between two males. What von Saal found was that those in utero between two males grew up more aggressive and less sexually appealing. They had fewer oestrus cycles in a lifetime. So something as seemingly small and insignificant as their position in the womb was enough to cause a lifetime and predictable difference in behaviour."
For humankind, says Vyvyan Howard, "the message is that if you make new chemical compounds which have never been around in the history of the species, then you should expect trouble. Many compounds that classical toxicology assumed were just biologically inert, are not. They work by hi-jacking development which inevitably has consequences for later life. Some of the consequences have to do with the disruption to oestrogen and testosterone. You see them in the more obvious, now increasing dysgenesis syndromes such as hypaspadias (malformation of the penis) and undescended testicles. Before the drug diethyl stilboestrol (DES) was banned, we saw a spell of incredibly rare, clear-cell vaginal cancer appearing in women, all of whom, it turned out, had mothers who had taken stilboestrol in pregnancy. Statistically, we know, any child with even the most minor malformation is marginally more likely than the rest of the population to contract cancer."
Exploring the connection between tissue dysgenesis and cancer is precisely the field of Professor Howards current research "We could talk for weeks about the reasons, but its likely to have something to do with tissue not being put together properly from the start." Professor Howard stresses that there are also, almost certainly, other disruptions going on in other endocrine systems such as thyroid and cortisone."
We are just at the start of the long march to discover what their impact actually is.
If man-made chemicals are space invaders, then, says Prof Howard, "we are just at the start of the long march to discover what their impact actually is. It is a line of enquiry that is of course, confounded by the fact that there is an extraordinarily complex mixture in every body, and everyone reacts differently and has different susceptibilities." Its complicated, too by opposing schools of scientific thought as to what causes body cells to lose control: "For the past 40-50 years" explains Professor Howard "weve been taught that cancer is caused by somatic mutation: if you damage DNA, then the cells lose control and start multiplying. The message in that theory is that the cause of cancer occurs at the cellular level and that the cells of the body are in a default state of quiescence."
But another school of thought now suggests that the cells in your body are in a state of proliferation as a default, so they have dont have to be kicked into proliferation. "We know thats true of bacteria, which are already in a default state of proliferation" Prof Howard observes. "Given the right condition - off they go. So the question then to ask is whether there was a discontinuity in development for evolution somewhere between bacteria and later cell forms. If so, can it be that all the cells in the body are held in a default state of proliferation - always wanting to proliferate?
TOFT - the new theory of Tissue Organisation Field Theory - contends that the control of proliferation is not just at the cellular level (though these mechanisms are very important), but at a higher, tissue organisation level. If TOFT is right, then where the normal tissue architecture has broken down, the signalling process also breaks down and the cells just start multiplying. This would explain why, for instance someone with a foreign body such as shrapnel is more likely to develop cancer at that site than they would be without that foreign body. Asbestos and mesothelioma are probably very good examples of foreign body carcinogenesis."
The hot TOFT debate continues, but, says Vyvyan Howard, "The bottom line for scientists is that our chances of unravelling the Gordian knot of chemical compound influences are virtually zero. The answers we are now seeking with regard to these chemicals need decades and probably, in some cases, centuries to elucidate."
We are not, however, relegated to a state of helpless gloom. Once again Professor Howard commends the Precautionary Principle: "Where our present state of knowledge prevents us being sure that a risk may bring harm, we should avoid it. We should heed the lessons ignored in relations say, to the risk of asbestos for lung disease, of radiation for cancer, antibiotics and resistance, halocarbons and ozone depletion." The gulf between what needs to be and what is done, reflects the disparity between the needs of politicians "who" says Prof Howard "work to very short time spans, basically to the next election" and the long term needs of society.
The heaps of nuclear waste we are leaving around for the stewardship of future generations - maybe a thousand future generations - are a case in point. We are talking of a very, very long term problem. What needs to be done is as obvious as motherhood and apple pie. Everyone talks about it. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of action, political short-termism means no one wants to rock the boat. Its a case of "Yes, Minister...a very good idea, but if we take it up, the gross national product will fall by x."
Prof Howard personally would like to see the decisions which govern these vital matters taken out of everyday politics and given over to a body with a much longer view
Prof Howard, personally would like to see the decisions which govern these vital matters taken out of everyday politics and given over to a body with a much longer view: "Holland, for instance, has had long term planning like this for many years and had coalition government for decades. People say that coalitions paralyse, but if you have pragmatic people, then you can get consensus and move accordingly. Only the other day the governments own sustainability referendum acknowledged that we do not have the right to saddle hundreds of generations with the stewardship of two decades of chemical abuse."
Prof Howard delivered the same message three years ago, when he stood up, on behalf of WWF, to hand Margot Wallstrom the public results of blood-testing for toxics, to which she had agreed: "Her levels were quite high, and I started off by telling her that they were lower than they would have been, had she not had two children to whom some of the chemical load had been passed." Sadly, since it also does so much good, the best way to get rid of somebody toxics is to lactate. If Vyvyan Howards work goes well, we could, in another 30 years, at least know more about the precise effects of that toxicity. At best, Johannas great, great, great grandchildren could then learn to halt its sickening impact.