Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher profile: Bengt Glimelius

HE lets curiosity light the way

Few Swedish oncologists have helped save as many lives as Bengt Glimelius, Professor Emeritus of Oncology, but that doesn’t mean he is ready to stop his scientific contributions to the field. In recognition of his achievements, Glimelius was awarded the Olof Rudbeck Prize in his home town of Uppsala in late October 2016.

With a long line of significant advances and important publications to his name, Professor Emeritus of Oncology Bengt Glimelius has perhaps contributed to more good survivor months among cancer patients than any other Swedish oncologist. He may have just celebrated his seventieth birthday, but he is still among the most prominent figures in the successful tradition of colorectal cancer research, not least due to the foundation he laid with Lars Påhlman for the Uppsala Model that significantly transformed treatment for this type of cancer.
“In a way, I’m already at the goal,” says Glimelius, “or at least I don’t feel like I have so much more I need to prove. But there are still a lot of challenges, and as long as I can help to reduce patients’ suffering, I will continue my work.”

The honours have not been long in coming. In 2013, Glimelius was awarded the ESTRO Regaud Medal by The European Cancer Congress “in recognition of the enormous contribution he has made to the field of oncology, both in Europe and the worldwide community.” On Friday 21 October 2016, he once again took the podium in his home town of Uppsala to receive the Olof Rudbeck Prize.
“It’s always nice when your own scientific work is recognised, especially at home. A few years ago, I had the honour of accepting the Uppsala County Council research prize and I will definitely also highly value the Rudbeck Prize.”

Every year, 6000 people in Sweden are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, making it the third most common cancer in the country. A fact that many may find surprising, as this cancer seems to be perpetually shadowed by other, much more high-profile diagnoses.
“We haven’t yet succeeded in generating the media attention that is given to other cancers, like prostate and breast cancer,” says Glimelius. “This might be because the subject quite simply isn’t very nice to talk about – not many people would be willing to wear a brown ribbon, for instance. The patient group is also older and doesn’t have a good organisation behind them. On the other hand, great strides have been made in the research on colorectal cancer, which has led to a significantly improved prognosis over the years.”

When Glimelius entered the field in the 1970s, the survival rate among patients was 40 percent, and even when treatment was successful, four of ten suffered a recurrence at the original tumour site. In a 1997 study, Glimelius, along with Lars Påhlman and other Swedish researchers, showed how radiation prior to surgical intervention in rectal cancer prolonged survival, a finding that even today, in combination with other measures, continues to improve the survival rate and has nearly eliminated the risk of local recurrence.

In autumn 2015, Glimelius’ long-time professional partner Lars Påhlman passed away due to complications from prostate cancer. He worked right up until the very end, and Bengt Glimelius continues their scientific work. The hours have decreased, it’s true (less than forty hours a week according to Bengt, more than forty if you ask his wife Kristina), but he has no plans to stop researching.
“Science is a continuous process,” says Glimelius. “Staying at the forefront requires a lot of work and I’ve already let go of a few areas – I no longer supervise doctoral students and I don’t see patients. These days, I prioritise family life. I travel frequently with my wife and spend lots of time in the forest and garden, but I’m also happy sitting at my computer. Research is my hobby and I have to see the final results of at least a few of the studies I’ve started.”

That Glimelius curiosity certainly seems to be an intractable force. When his research team recently completed a major international study, not more than a day or two passed before Glimelius had sketched out the plans for his next study. An application was submitted and – of course – it wasn’t long before the team was hard at work again at the forefront of science.
“Cancer research in Uppsala is an incredibly inspiring environment that has harboured a number of formidable representatives through the years – Jan Pontén, Lennart Philipson, Bengt Westermark and Kjell Öberg just to name a few The clinical researcher’s situation is not optimal today – the world requires a disproportional amount of their time – but Uppsala University’s position in the field continues to be strong. It’s just as fun as ever to go to work and I look forward to many new exciting and interesting experiences with the research team.”

Magnus Alsne

And finally, I would recommend everyone to: Get more exercise!

Facts: Bengt Glimelius

Title: Professor Emeritus of Oncology
Age: 70
Lives in: Uppsala
Family: Wife, two children, four grandchildren and one cat
On the bedside table: Yamal och björnjakten, (“Yamal and the Bear Hunt”), a light and very funny novel by Sven Simonsson, and Pappan (“The Father”) by Stefan Einhorn
As soon as I get time: Oh, opera, theatre, books, garden, forest... and happily mushroom picking this time of year.
I am good at: Cooking, preferably with a reindeer steak, perch or roast lamb on the menu.
And finally, I would recommend everyone to: Get more exercise!