Sir Paul Nurse

Doctor of Science


Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Sir Paul Nurse in 2001 shared the most prestigious of awards, the Nobel Prize, in Medicine or Physiology, with Professors Lee Hartwell and Tim Hunt for their pioneering work on the control of the cell cycle. His research has led to our current understanding of how the cell is driven from one phase to the next in the natural cell cycle, so that cells can reproduce accurately and pass on undamaged genetic material from one generation to the next.  That is, how the cells that make up our bodies multiply and produce normal cells and not damaged cells. This has greatly increased our understanding of why certain cells multiply uncontrollably and become cancerous. Fundamental knowledge of this kind is essential, if we are to make further progress in the prevention and cure of a number of major diseases including cancer.

Paul Nurse’s fascination with the natural sciences started when he was young and was stimulated when he was given a telescope for his 8th birthday. His childhood interests led him to study Biology at Birmingham University, where he graduated in 1970.

His scientific career did not get off to a flying start, his undergraduate project on “the respiration rate of dividing fish eggs” ending in complete disaster. Do I hear a cry of, “hope for me yet” from some of this year’s graduates?  However, this did not put the young Paul Nurse off a career in science. Instead his undergraduate work stimulated him to undertake research on the cell cycle for which he later received the Nobel Prize.  While studying for his PhD at the University of Norwich, Paul was already beginning to show the qualities which would lead him to success.  He was not only asking important scientific questions, but also thinking deeply about the best way to answer them.

One of the big questions in the early 1970’s which was relevant to both science and medicine was how do cells, which are the basic units of life, know when to divide? Put in other words, how do all living cells know when to reproduce and make copies of themselves? How do humans which contain trillions of cells grow from a single cell, the fertilised egg?  Errors in reproduction can be deadly. If a cell in any particular tissue such as the skin makes too many copies of itself this can lead to skin cancer.  If cells do not make enough copies of themselves, for example in wound healing or to replace old worn out cells, then we can waste away!

The genetic programme for human life in every human cell is encoded in a precise sequence of 3 billion chemicals known as DNA bases found in genes in the chromosomes.  The cell has to make an exact copy of the 3 billion bases before it can divide into 2 new cells and it does this in a few hours.  If the cell makes one copying error in 3 billion in an important gene this can ultimately lead to cancer. A cell, therefore, just like a pilot before take off, has specific checkpoints to test if everything is ready before it makes a copy of itself. If it is unable to do this, then, as for a pilot, the consequences can be catastrophic.

So how does the cell know when to make a copy of itself? Paul Nurse recognised this as a fundamental question having important implications for our ability to understand many biological processes. He also realised the difficulties of working with complex human cells and reasoned that he might have more success by looking at a simpler system. He had to look no further than into his glass of beer, and I am only guessing that he might have had some of experience of doing that.

Yeast to most people means beer or bread, yeast to Paul means beer too, but also a relatively simple single cell organism in which to study the cell cycle.  Therefore, after his PhD at Norwich University he worked in Edinburgh with Professor Murdoch Mitchison and then at Sussex University where he set up his own lab, and continued to work on the cell cycle in yeast.  During this very successful period he and his team discovered a yeast gene, cdc2, which was shown to be critical in controlling the cell cycle of yeast cells. 

From Sussex University he went to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London in 1984.  At the time there were sceptics who questioned why a yeast researcher should be at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund which is dedicated to cancer research.  However, Paul knew better. While at the ICRF he and his team discovered a human equivalent to the yeast cdc2 gene and showed that the cell cycle in humans was controlled in a similar way to yeast.  Thus, Paul Nurse’s instinct that studying a relatively simple organism such as yeast would lead to a fundamental understanding of how human cells multiply paid off. Understanding how normal and cancer cells multiply is an essential step to conquering cancer.

In 1988 Paul Nurse went to be the Professor of Microbiology at Oxford University where he was also head of Department and President of the Genetical Society.  In 1993 he went back to London and became the Scientific Director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, one of the most prestigious Cancer Institutes in the world. At that time there were two major cancer charities in the UK, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Research Campaign. Early in 2002 they joined forces to generate a single organisation, Cancer Research UK, the largest cancer research organisation outside the USA, of which Paul Nurse became Chief Executive.

During his extraordinary career Paul has won a number of other awards and distinctions, too many to mention.  In 1989 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In the nineties he won several prestigious awards from the USA and in 1999 was honoured with a knighthood for services to Cancer Research and for his pioneering work on the cell cycle.

So if any of you are wondering what to buy your children for their birthday..… you could do a lot worse than a telescope.

Is Paul Nurse, the scientist, too busy to have a life, the answer is emphatically no!  He is a keen amateur astronomer, loves his Kawasaki motorbike, enjoys gliding and for relaxation, being on “Desert Island Discs”. Last time in France near the Pyrenees Paul had an exciting time in a glider, in a thunderstorm. Also a couple of near misses in Oxfordshire. Even in his hobby he shows determination to rise above others.

Paul is also a family man.  He met his wife-to-be, Anne (with whom he has two daughters), while both were undergraduates at Birmingham University. During this youthful time he has been described (by John Tooze, a colleague and friend at the ICRF) as “a Trotskyist Young Undergrad Firebrand occupying the Vice-Chancellor’s office in Birmingham University in 1960’s but he has become the pillar of the establishment in the 1990’s”.  Recently Paul was dubbed “a socialist” on a radio chat show by none other than Jim Watson, a fellow Nobel Laureate. Thus showing it is possible to become a pillar of the establishment and retain principles of your youth. To underline the latter point I would like to quote Professor Tim Hunt, a colleague of Paul, who said “Paul possesses unusual charm, so that anyone who works with him adores him and leaves his presence touched with a lighter heart.  At the same time one must not be fooled by the cuddly exterior.  A steely personality lies within an implacable will, a very sharp intelligence, and a prodigious capacity for hard work. Hardly surprising that he has risen so far.” 

Paul’s love and appreciation of science and in particular, the workings of the wonderful cell, has as with many great scientists before him, made him realise that science can be beautiful, profoundly aesthetic and even spiritual. This has resulted in Paul wishing to share his experience with others and through the Royal Society he works to increase the public understanding of science. One way of doing this is by communicating through the popular press, so I am sure Paul will have been delighted to hear that he is, according to the Sun Newspaper, “the David Beckham of Science.” Like Beckham, Paul Nurse has been poached from abroad and will this autumn become President of the prestigious Rockefeller University in New York. Like Beckham, Paul is also an international player and therefore it will not be the last we see or hear of him.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, Sir Paul Nurse has made an outstanding contribution to science and medicine. His work both through health and education will continue to be an enormous benefit to humanity and an inspiration for those graduating today. I present to you Paul Nurse, Knight Bachelor, Fellow of the Royal Society, Bachelor of Science of the University of Birmingham, Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Norwich, Nobel Laureate, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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