Dr. Ian Gibson MP

Dr. Ian Gibson MP

This interview is with Dr. Ian Gibson, for CANCERactive and was originally published in Issue 4 2005 icon

Dr. Ian Gibson

Westminster’s Rebel With A Cause

By Madeleine Kingsley
Photography by Paul Chave

In terms of energy, Dr. Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North could put a whirlwind to shame. His commitment to cancer prevention and care, however, is wholly productive, leaving people, trees and buildings still standing - and standing taller if anything - in his wake. And it’s hard to remain unswayed by his impassioned health arguments and his pledge always "to put people and sound judgement first, before political ambition".

As a righter of wrongs in the cancer field Ian Gibson carries punch and quotability: of the mighty pharmaceutical companies he says "They are the best lobbyists in the world. I spend a lot of time with them and on a one-to-one basis I love them dearly. But as organisations, you wonder if they are devoting money to the best service and support of the people for whom they provide drugs." That’s one big issue, but Gibson also makes time for the small-money matter of in-patients being charged premium phone rates: "That money should go to the hospitals, not to the telephone companies." A tall, convivial, eloquent Scot, football fan, onetime aficionado of malt whiskeys and thrice winner of the epolitix award for government health champion, Ian Gibson is Westminster’s hot new rebel with a cause - our cancer czar without formal portfolio.

Open quotesSome of the other researchers have since gone into politics themselvesClose quotes

Long before he took his seat in 1997, politics was inextricably linked with Dr Gibson’s first, academic, career in the biology of cancer and the development of new drugs targeting specific genes for chronic myeloid leukaemia. The lab he led at the University of East Anglia was never governed by what he calls "sheer boffin hood". "We always debated events of the day, talked about how research was funded, who made decisions and so on. Some of the other researchers have since gone into politics themselves and sitting at various university meetings or on committees appointing vice chancellors, you learned and honed the skills of talking and questioning people."

Dr Gibson’s frustration at having to make research cuts throughout the 18 years of the conservative government was certainly vented aloud. "Heading up a lab I had to collect money from all sorts of sources. I may now miss the science work and the bright young colleagues. But I don’t miss the one year, two year contracts, and the ongoing fight for money that really messed up my life and sometimes left gaps, creating tears among very good, enthusiastic researchers who just wanted a job. I still keep banging on about the fact that many promising scientists who want to do health research give up on it, which maddens me. If you read this Tony", Gibson adds, "Make it your last move to do something about it - and quickly!"

Always political, he was caught off guard by someone at the university who said they needed a new candidate for Norwich North. "Oh hell," I said, "Put my name forward!"

Open quotesIt offered good hope, the chance to talk medicine, to talk science, to get money into the areas most in needClose quotes

Losing the 1992 election by just 264 votes, Ian Gibson then returned to his research and his role as the University’s Dean of the Medical Faculty. "But as my daughter joked, I was a Dean by day, and a parliamentary candidate by night. The night job came good in 1997, but in the preceding years I was gearing up and going to meetings all the time, because we all knew that Labour would certainly get in next time. So it was exciting; it offered good hope, the chance to talk medicine, to talk science, to get money into the areas most in need. And there’s no doubt about it, as a result of such talking, much of this has happened."

It’s fair to say, though, that at the time, Gibson’s wife - a nurse - was less than ecstatic about losing him to London. So was his friend and lab sponsor the Norwich City goalkeeper, Brian Gunn. Brian had lost a daughter to leukaemia and so started a campaign that raised 750,000. "At my suggestion he built the Francesca Gunn laboratory, which I ran for five years. Besides all the money Brian gave, a local charity called Big C also supported the lab, as did the Leukaemia Research Fund and Cancer Research." Ian Gibson is missed in the lab, no doubt of that: Brian Gunn had urged him not to give it up, stressing that he was already doing a great job with cancer, and inspiring many young people to follow in his agile footsteps. "The argument that you want to change the world" Gibson wryly observes "doesn’t hold much water with folk back on the ranch."

In London however, Gibson’s moving and shaking has shifted more than a few mountains for the greater good: The jewel in his crown has to be the establishment of an All Party Cancer Group, magnetising 150 politicians to its inaugural meeting. Closely tied to this is an annual "Britain Against Cancer" policy conference, which last year debated the future of services and this year addressed inequalities of care. An enquiry into cancer resulted in the foundation of the NCRI - the National Cancer Research Institute, thus bringing together all the diffuse cancer groups - research councils, charity groups, voluntary agencies. "It seems" says Dr Gibson simply "to have been a roaring success."

Convinced that there are too many similar charities in the cancer field, often bidding for the same funds and with similar aims, Gibson led the recommendation for the Imperial Cancer Fund and Cancer Research to merge. "Initially both Chief Execs said it couldn’t happen, but now it has" he says. "Would that other groups would follow suit."

Dr. Ian Gibson

Natural charm softens Gibson’s direct delivery. He wants change fast, no question of that, yet never seems curmudgeonly about the tortoise pace that prevails in parliament; the morning we met he had met with the all party group officers to develop a new cancer plan: "We all think that there is so much more to do. There is real concern about the availability of drugs to many people. It’s rumoured that there’s going to be fast-tracking of the examination of drugs, but when? People are suffering now. I am also in favour of a sub-panel, or special committee, for cancer drugs of which there are many now on the list to be examined. There should be similar committees focussing on drugs for mental health, for degenerative diseases, Alzheimers and so on."

The conservatism surrounding clinical trials is a genuine Gibson bugbear: "The whole process - how to speed them up, how to approach them, and whether we really need all the present stages - the whole thing needs re-examining. The issue of how many patients should be trialled is also topical, but perhaps being overtaken by individual patient demand for drug treatment, as with Herceptin. Why is England being left behind Scotland and Wales? Well, because NICE is so cumbersome and maybe it doesn’t need to be quite as thorough as it thinks it needs to be. There could be good reasons for sucking and seeing and saying ’let’s go for it’. If people want a drug and there’s some positive evidence, then let’s at least try it. There’s fear around in case it all ends up in court, and there’s often amazement when people are prepared to give doctors the benefit of the doubt. I think we should be going down a positive route rather than saying ’No’ all the time."

Gibson also wants to up spending on cancer prevention - "Did you know that it accounts for less than one per cent of the UK cancer budget?" He recently met Oliver Gillie, the medical correspondent and a former Fellow student, to hear Gillie’s concerns that pressure to avoid sunlight could deprive us of vitamin D and so contribute to illnesses that sun-shunning supposedly prevents. Also knocking on his door in recent weeks have been a Professor from Surrey University who needs 9m to trial the cancer prevention properties of selenium, and an ovarian oncologist highlighting the vital need to develop some early detection method in her speciality so that many more women’s lives can be saved. "If we are going to address prevention properly" says Gibson, "then we also need new ways of picking up all the major cancers earlier. If we can do this for breast, then perhaps we can do it better for prostate and eventually for myeloid leukaemia and myeloma."

Open quotesInequalities in research spending must also be addressedClose quotes

Inequalities in research spending must also be addressed: "There’s a lot of buzz about breast cancer gene studies. But why is the PSA test for men still wonky? How useful is it and do people really care?’ He recently launched an awareness-raising campaign for mouth cancer, which, in 2003, killed more people than cervical and testicular cancer combined. The International Myeloma Fund put Gibson up for his third epolitix award because of his input in their small charity over the past three years and he won. He’s tabled an Early Day Motion to raise political awareness about this lesser-known disease of the bone marrow cells. And, with celebrity patron Maureen Lipman, he hosted a major event to highlight the charity, pulling in 200 MPs and doctors.

"Will we cure myeloma? I think yes - either by drugs or some kind of vaccine. I believe that the time for vaccines has come, and I used to work on the HPV papilloma virus for cervical cancer." He is, he feels, much too involved in too many things. And that’s only in the science field, where in one day he may be discussing human embryos with a French researcher, patient access to medical technology with NICE or the gene to gene revolution. But his research past continues to serve the present well: "A woman researcher came to talk to me about a programme for spotting cervical cancer early. I asked if it this was via a simple cytology test and whether it was strains 16 and 18." "How did you know?" she wondered. "So my experience helps to break the ice."

It may also boost medic/patient rapport: "Doctors should try to understand what patients feel, and talk the language they understand. Patients should try and understand what doctors are doing. My aim is to try and bring both sides together and break down a lot of hierarchical barriers."

Open quotesI remember being told that there was no problem with radiation
whatsoeverClose quotes

Gibson is one of life’s natural listeners, and keys into popular anxiety, such as currently surrounds phone masts and mobile phones. Norwich, his home constituency, has a cancer cluster close to mast siting, and although Gibson stresses that the evidence against masts is not yet solid, he has heard from, and heeded, many "antis". ’I gravitate to their view, partly because I remember that asbestos used to be thought safe. I remember being told that there was no problem with radiation whatsoever, yet it’s quite clear in medical practice that radiation can have side effects, as radiographers and also dentists now leave the room when x-raying. So there is understandably an association between radiation and health problems in people’s heads. It’s ridiculous that the phone companies can stick up masts at the end of your garden without your permission and without having to fight the planning authority."

When it comes to practising what he preaches, Ian Gibson does not pretend to be a paragon of virtue: "Not at all. There are probably times when I drink too much and eat too much, when I don’t sleep too much. I don’t know what lying in bed means - maybe I should find out before it’s too late!" At 67 he still jogs and runs two or three times a week and has fully recovered from a mild stroke in Palestine last year, though at the time it was far from healing to have the Israelis and Arabs literally tussling over his patient care. It’s hard, he says "now coming to terms with having to run two miles a day instead of 10, and strange to adapt to ’being old’". "You don’t ever want it to happen, but it does" he says philosophically enough. His wife told him that he had the stroke coming to him: "You work far too hard. Take this as a warning." Which Gibson now does: "I relax much more. I used to let things get on my nerves far too much."

His light hearted hope just now is to merit a mention in a new book on rebellious MPs. More seriously he is determined to "set up a think tank on medicine and science. I have a list of bright and breezy people who are not politically affiliated as such, but think hard about the issues around health, patient involvement, how drugs are to be used, how much evidence you need to make legislation I want to discuss all this and then produce a pamphlet and a book, taking as my blueprint Raising the Bar which Lord Moynahan and Kate Hoey wrote on how to do sport in this country. I would also like to do a pamphlet on how to improve science and medical knowledge in the community. I would like to get ahead and not just play silly select committee games.".

If MPs were footballers, Dr Ian Gibson, would surely be a striker and a winner!

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