Aston 50th Anniversary: Karen Capel Q&A

50 Aston Greats - Karen Capel

Karen Capel

Karen Capel graduated from a degree in Modern Languages at Aston University in 1984. After losing her young son, Christopher, to a brain tumour in 2008, Karen - with no previous experience in the charity sector - set up Christopher’s Smile: an organisation that aims to improve treatment for children with cancer. At the time of writing, Christopher’s Smile has raised nearly £700,000 and is at the forefront of new research into assessing tumour types and delivering targeted treatments to children.

Were you daunted by the idea of setting up a charity?

In terms of setting up, I think the key element for me was the motivation and drive to make a difference for other children - that was the thing that inspired me and kept me going. There were of course huge gaps in my knowledge. I’d never had anything to do with charities in the past; never had any marketing experience; never had any experience of running events; so it was daunting in some ways, but I think that was overshadowed by this strong desire to make a difference.

What kinds of challenges is the medical profession facing at the moment with regard to treating cancer in children?

Clinicians treating children in the front-line are predominately still working with the same old tools in their kit bag. These are surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy all of which have potential long-term side-effects. Things are moving forward from the science perspective, but new drugs are not being made available at the rate at which they are needed. The area that we have funded so far is essentially the testing of new treatments [for children]. There is little or no commercial benefit for pharmaceutical companies to develop adult drugs for paediatric use and no benefit whatsoever for the development of drugs purely for paediatric use. For us, there is a major challenge in terms of actually raising awareness about the fact that the pace of development of new treatments for children is governed not by the rate of scientific innovation and discovery but by commercial policy. Commercial policy seems to far outweigh any medical benefits for children with cancer which we find difficult to accept.

How is Christopher’s Smile tackling these issues?

I suppose the first thing you think about with the charity is fundraising. We’ve now almost fully funded our fourth research position in just over five years and we have raised almost £700,000. Our goal is to find treatments which are both effective and which have far fewer side effects. We want to see children with cancer have a longer life and ideally come through treatment the same child as when they went into it. Our third research position is that of a molecular pathologist and her work is the first of its kind in Europe for children. She focusses on analysing tumour biology - so all children now presenting at [The Royal] Marsden and Great Ormond Street [hospitals] have their tumours assessed by her. It is  important to us when we fund an area that any royalties or any commercial benefit go back to that research centre, so that the research cycle can continue. Other areas we are tackling are campaigning for earlier drugs or innovative treatments to come into front-line use for children as quickly as possible.

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

In the early eighties I was interested in both science and languages and I opted for the Modern Languages course. Aston, compared to the other universities, had a much more modern and applicable approach to languages and that, for me, was the big appeal. The course allowed exciting opportunities and during summer breaks I au paired in France. I think my placement year in Germany was such a fantastic learning opportunity that everybody should do it at some point in life.

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

I would say: embrace any opportunities that you have. Step out and try new things. Work hard, perhaps at what you know and like, but also test the water with new things.