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Biochemistry graduate awarded Royal Medal for DNA discovery

29 September 2022

Newcastle graduate Dr Stephen West FMedSci FRS (PhD Biochemistry, 1978) has been awarded a Royal Medal this summer.

He has been awarded this prize for discovering and determining the function of the key enzymes that are essential for recombination, repair and the maintenance of genomes.

Following his graduation from Newcastle University, Yorkshire-born Stephen moved to the USA to carry out post-doctoral work at Yale University. In 1985, he moved back to the UK to set up a research group at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Clare Hall Laboratories at South Mimms (which became the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute in 2002 and the Francis Crick Institute in 2015).

Stephen has been a leader in the fields of genetic recombination and DNA repair for the past three decades. His research centres on mechanisms of genetic recombination and DNA strand break repair. In particular, he has defined relationships between defective DNA repair processes and human diseases such as inheritable breast cancer and neurological disorders.

It is for this research that Stephen was awarded a prestigious Royal Medal in August 2022.

A glance over the list of previous recipients leads to an escalation of my feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’ – my upbringing in a working-class family in a village in Yorkshire has always kept me well grounded, so I am deeply honoured by this award.

Stephen’s research

Stephen’s research centres on finding out how cells repair damage to their DNA to understand more about cancer and other diseases.

Every day, our DNA gets damaged, whether by things in the world around us – such as harmful chemicals or ultraviolet light from the sun – or as a side effect of the natural processes at work within the body. If they are not repaired, these lesions accumulate and can lead to diseases such as cancer or progressive neurodegenerative disorders. To cope with such high levels of damage, our cells are equipped with a number of DNA repair mechanisms.

The lab that Stephen leads conducts research on a specific type of DNA repair - known as homologous recombination - that re-joins broken chromosomes. People who inherit faults in the genes involved in homologous recombination have an increased risk of cancer or other conditions. For example, people with a faulty version of a gene called BRCA2 are at a greatly increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

By understanding exactly how these genes work and seeing what happens when they go wrong, Stephen’s work is shedding light on the fundamental processes that keep our cells healthy and also point towards new ways to prevent or treat cancer and other diseases.

About the Royal Medal

Each year, two medals are awarded for the most important contributions to the advancement of ‘natural knowledge’ in the physical and biological sciences respectively. A third medal is awarded for distinguished contributions in the applied sciences.

The three Royal Medals, also known as the Queen’s Medals, are awarded annually by the Sovereign on the recommendation of the Council of the Royal Society. They were founded by HM King George IV in 1825.