Genome Research Limited

Giants in genomics: Mike Stratton

Professor Sir Mike Stratton is the director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and co-leader of the Cancer Genome Project.

Mike Stratton was fascinated with biology from his teenage years and his interests initially led him towards the field of medicine. He studied at Oxford University and later Guy’s Hospital in London, where he qualified in 1982. However during his years as a junior doctor, he felt frustrated by the distance between his work as a clinician and his fundamental interest in the science of health and disease.

There is sometimes awful beauty in the way cells conspire to orchestrate life-threatening conditions

Mike Stratton

He therefore took the decision to train as a histopathologist, which involves examining tissue under the microscope to study the development of disease, “peering into this hidden world provides you with profound and powerful insights into the ways disease is generated… there is sometimes awful beauty in the way cells conspire to orchestrate life-threatening conditions”.

However during his time working in pathology, Mike still had the feeling he was missing out on the “real action”. So, after developing a keen interest in the molecular biology of cancer, he decided to complete a PhD in the subject at the Institute of Cancer Research in London.

After completing his PhD in 1989, Mike accepted a position on the faculty at the Institute of Cancer Research and it was here that he discovered his true calling – cancer genetics – “it has become of almost mystical fascination to me that you can look down a microscope and see the misbehaving cells of a tumour.”

"It has become of almost mystical fascination to me that you can look down a microscope and see the misbehaving cells of a tumour.” Mike Stratton

Image credit: Genome Research Limited

During his work Mike and his team identified one of two major genes that increase the risk of breast cancer when mutated, BRCA2. This work enabled the development of important predictive tests that give women, worldwide, the time and information needed to make better decisions about how to manage their breast cancer risk. 

In the following years, Mike went on to uncover further breast cancer genes and investigate those related to a whole host of other cancers, including testicular, colorectal and thyroid cancer.

By the end of the 1990s, the Human Genome Project was underway, and sections of the human genome were beginning to be sequenced. Mike saw that the sequence emerging from the Human Genome Project would enable scientists to identify all cancer genes. As a result, in 1999, Mike proposed the Cancer Genome Project.

In 2002, his team described mutations in the BRAF gene and their involvement in 60 per cent of malignant melanoma cases.

In 2000, he joined the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which then became the home for the Cancer Genome Project.  The project grew quickly thanks to the technological advances of that time and Mike's team moved rapidly towards their goal of producing a comprehensive catalogue of human cancer mutations.  In 2002, his team described mutations in the BRAF gene and their involvement in 60 per cent of malignant melanoma cases.

In 2007, Mike led the first international collaboration to investigate mutations arising in different cancers, the International Cancer Genome Consortium. The consortium was the first to contribute full catalogues of the mutations in two cancers, small-cell lung cancer and malignant melanoma.  

In May 2010, Mike Stratton was appointed Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. In this position Mike has been committed to international collaboration and has a real drive to use research to improve our understanding of health and disease and approaches to clinical practice.

The discoveries made by Mike and his teams in the various institutes he has worked have directly improved the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of cancer, and set the foundation for more personalised cancer treatments.

Mike was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2008 and knighted in 2013.

In 2008, Mike was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and, in 2013, he was awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to medical sciences.

This page was last updated on 2016-06-13