Aston's 50th Anniversary: Professor Malcolm Stevens Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Professor Malcolm Stevens

Professor Malcolm Stevens OBE, FRS

In 1972 Professor Malcolm Stevens arrived at Aston University as Reader, then Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. From 1980 to 2006 he was the Director of the Cancer Research UK (formerly Cancer Research Campaign) Experimental Cancer Chemotherapy group, where he was responsible for the discovery and early development of temozolomide, a treatment for brain tumours. 

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

In 1972 I was contacted by George Wibberley. He and the other senior professor, Mike Brown, were doing the right things at Aston. One of the professors said: “This is the Manchester United of Pharmacy departments”. I thought “That sounds good”, though I am a Bolton Wanderers supporter! But anyway, I joined the staff here and most of the Professors were keen to establish a research culture and that was fine by me.

How did the discovery of temozolomide come about?

My colleague Bob Stone made this series of compounds. He was working on a May & Baker CASE Co-operative Award in Science and Engineering, which meant that [chemical company] May & Baker helped to fund the project. We were interested in the compound azolastone [the first version of temozolomide], and it was named azolastone because it had “Aston” and Bob Stone’s name in it. It was a beautiful name. We did most of the anti-tumour tests at Aston or in collaboration with people at May & Baker, and this compound was put into clinical trial in 1983. We actually did some of the making up of the ampoules in a teaching lab on the sixth floor [of the Main Building] in the vacation week. Which you can’t do now - there are all sorts of laws against doing it. But anyway, it was a disaster in clinical trials, this azolastone, it had some pretty serious side-effects.

Were you tempted to give up?

Well academics are not like that, they will find every excuse to carry on with their favourite project. The original patent only had 13 compounds in it - by that time we had made 100, maybe 150, that we could rescue that would not have the side-effects of azolastone. We persuaded Cancer Research Campaign to take it on and do some clinical trials with Doctor Ed Newlands, who was a great supporter of the group. The initial trial wasn’t successful - this was just on a single dose. And Ed Newlands said “Well, you know, a single dose is no good you’ve got to divide it up into five mini-doses”. So as a last throw of the dice, he took on some patients and gave them these five doses of the drug. And then things started happening. There was a very famous response in a patient with a T-cell lymphoma; and there were a couple of responses in patients with malignant melanoma and a couple of patients with brain tumours, where they clearly had a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.

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

Some graduates like the easy route - they can see a job at the end of it and they tend to want to do the minimum of difficult things to get to that place where they can earn money, instead of venture into projects where they’re challenged. [But] if they succeed, they get a taste for surmounting other challenges. So that would be my advice - don’t just settle for the easy path, challenge yourself and strive upwards.