Bridging the gap with genetics 

January 4, 2017

From a pit village to a knighthood – Professor Sir John Burn is a pioneer in genetic and genomic research and one of the founders of Newcastle’s International Centre for Life. Here, he talks to Alison Cowie about his illustrious career, his proud North-Eastern roots and the important lesson he learnt from his entrepreneurial father

Professor Sir John Burn grew up in West Auckland, a County Durham village synonymous with coal mining. The third child – and first son – he spent his early childhood garnering attention from his devoted extended family by reciting interesting facts such as how many miles it is from Earth to the moon.

His father, a son of a local farmer, left school at 14 and set up his own business making caravans at 21.

After moving onto ice cream vans, his father’s business faltered when the government imposed a tax on ice cream. Undeterred, Harry Burn began a new business recycling pit heaps and disused railway lines – an enterprise that would prove lucrative for him and his family.

For his teenage son, who was already excelling at grammar school, this meant weekends spent picking bricks out of lorries and selling coal around the doors. The labouring paid off when his father rewarded the 18-year-old by insuring him on the family’s new Mercedes car.

A few months prior, Sir John had been taken with his class to hear a lecture on DNA at Lumley Castle in Durham. The molecule structure of DNA had been discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953 and the 1968 Nobel prize had been awarded to Robert W. Holley, Har Gobind Khorana and Marshall W. Nirenberg for cracking the DNA code.

Sir John remembers the occasion fondly – not only as an introduction to the science that he would eventually dedicate his career to, but because his teacher, Mr Mason, asked him to explain the lecture on the way back to school.

“I found the double helix of DNA aesthetically pleasing but the thing that really interested me was the code,” says Sir John. “The idea that you could use a sequence written with just four letters to create a human being and that you could unravel the puzzle from simple experimentation fascinated me.”

In 1970 Sir John began studying at Newcastle Medical School – an experience he initially found daunting.

“I was nervous because all the others were sons of doctors and lawyers. I felt like an outsider and so I tried really hard in the first term to make sure I wasn’t left behind.”

His diligence resulted in him being ranked fourth in his class and offered the chance to take a year out and complete an extra degree. Sir John accepted and dedicated the year to genetics – a field still in its infancy.

“I seemed to be the only person in the medical school who knew about DNA, explains Sir John. “None the lecturers talked about it because it was so new – but it seemed obvious to me that it was going to be important and I could see an entrepreneurial dimension to using genes in medicine.”

After returning to his regular studies, Sir John boldly announced to his peers that he would become the first ever clinical geneticist in the North East – a proclamation he would go on to fulfil.

Following medical school, though, Sir John – who had since married his childhood sweetheart, Linda – initially trained as a physician and a paediatrician. This was followed by four years of speciality training at St Ormond Street Hospital in London.

In 1984, Sir John, Linda and their children, Danielle and Jamie, returned to the North East.

Sir John become a consultant at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) and in 1990 became the Professor of Clinical Genetics at Newcastle University, where he could dedicate his time to building genetics and genomics into healthcare.

“There were many people in Cambridge and Oxford who were surprised when I decided to return to the North East,” Sir John reflects, “but I was confident I would be accepted into the region’s medical community. I knew these were ‘my people’.

“There were already a few people doing genetics in the North East and I believed that, with consultant leadership, we could turn that into a major force,” he adds.

“I helped everyone to ‘fly in formation’ and we were able to create the Northern Genetics Service and get contracts with the NHS to provide comprehensive genetics services.”

As a professor at Newcastle University, Sir John has led some of the most pioneering work in genetics and genomics to date.

His personal highlights include his work alongside Professor Nicholas Wald, to prove the benefit of women taking folic acid in pregnancy to prevent spina bifida. He also established the international Cancer Prevention Programme (CaPP) in 1993, which carries out clinical trials into hereditary cancers. Sir John remains with the programme as its chief investigator and the current CaPP3 clinical trial is focused on finding the right dose of aspirin to prevent cancer in people with a gene defect that causes Lynch syndrome.

Sir John led the team that discovered neuroferrinitnopathy, a hereditary illness that affects movement. His team was able to trace the genetic defect from a Cumbrian family blighted by the disease for generations.

The discovery means treatments are now being researched.

As part of the founding team, Sir John also helped to bring the International Centre for Life to what was then a piece of derelict land next to Newcastle Central Station.

Sir John first got the idea for a genetics-based visitor centre while visiting Cambridge University in 1994 with his daughter, who was attended her entrance interviews.

Between appointments, they visited the shed where Francis Crick and James Watson made their DNA discovery. It struck the genetics specialist that there should be a place where people could find out about the science of DNA in a fun and informative way.

“On the train back that night, Danielle and I did our first iteration of a visitor centre dedicated to genetics and genomics,” Sir John explains.

He began working alongside the science journalist and author Viscount Matt Ridley, and with Alastair Balls and Linda Conlon, who were both in charge of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation. The team hit on the idea of combining a visitors’ centre with a science park dedicated to medical research.

Defying everyone’s expectations, they were awarded funding from the Millennium Landmark Project.

The International Centre for Life was opened by the Queen in 2000 and, while many other Millennium Landmark Project developments have since disappeared, the Newcastle centre has thrived.

The Life Science Centre now welcomes around 250,000 visitors a year, offers science practical classes to 40,000 school children and, as Sir John explains, “apart from two grants from the Wellcome Trust, it is a self-funded facility”.

It is home to the region’s Genetics and Fertility services and over 40 research teams in Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine, as well as several commercial biotech businesses working on the next innovation in life sciences.

“The centre is a place where we do cutting-edge medical research but it also has the popular support of the local community,” reflects Sir Burn. “This, in turn, gives a very good impression of our region.”

Having a facility such as the Centre for Life – along with the stellar reputation of Newcastle University’s Medical School (now ranked the eighth best medical school in the UK) – has helped the region grow its national and international reputation in life sciences.

For Sir John, though, it is important that the North East works together to develop this further.

“The people [of the North East] are just as good as everyone else and we are capable of achieving great things,” he says. “We were once the Silicon Valley of the 19th century, with the electric light discovered by Sir Joseph Swann of Sunderland – a year before Edison – the striking match by Stockton’s John Walker, the steam turbine by Sir Charlie Parsons and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket, the world’s first passenger steam engine, all invented and manufactured in the region.

“To become a powerful centre again,” Sir John adds, ”every part of the region must work together to get our voice heard in the South East.”

In addition to sitting on the boards of numerous local, national and international committees, advisory groups and initiatives aimed at the advancement of genetics and genomics, Sir John has also helped develop several life science businesses based in the North East.

This has included DNA paternity and relationship testing company NorthGene Ltd in 1994 (where he is still a medical director) and NewGene in 2008, a partnership between the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University that uses next-generation sequencing and genotyping technologies to support clinical diagnostics.

Sir John has also been involved in molecular diagnostics company QuantuMDx since its inception in March 2008 and is currently its chairman and chief medical officer.

Based in Newcastle’s Lugano Building (after outgrowing its Centre for Life facilities), QuantuMDx has developed the Q-POC, a handheld diagnostic device with in-built DNA sequencing that promises to allow doctors to make personalised diagnostics to patients far cheaper and in real time.

The company was recently awarded funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the technology’s application in detection and drug susceptibility to tuberculosis. CEO Elaine Warburton also joined Prime Minster Theresa May on a trade visit to India in November.

During his career, Sir John’s achievements have been recognised with numerous accolades and awards, the pinnacle of which came in 2010 when he was awarded a knighthood for services to medicine and healthcare.

He was also named as one of the 20 ‘local heroes’ of Newcastle from the last 60 years and has a plaque in his honour on the Quayside.

Sitting in his office at the Centre for Life, he jokes: “My plaque is on this side of the river, while Sting’s is all the way over on the other side.” Though he quickly adds that this is probably because more people will bother to walk over to see the musician’s plaque.

The 64-year-old admits he is not as ambitious as he once was but still maintains a busy schedule, splitting his time between Newcastle University and QuantuMDx – alongside half a day a week at the RVI as honorary consultant clinical geneticist of Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and his work as non-executive director to NHS England and deputy chair to the specialist commissioning committee of NHS England.

He visits his four grandchildren, who live in Canterbury, as often as he can and has ambitions to master the perfect round of golf and to return to playing the drums – utilising the three drum kits that sit at home.

“I also need to practise my computer games as I keep getting beaten by my grandchildren,” Sir John adds with a smile.

Sadly, Sir John’s father died just before his son became a professor at Newcastle University – and so was never able to see the full impact his son has made in medical research and how his entrepreneurial spirit has been embraced – albeit in a very different way.

“My dad wasn’t very emotional – he was from a generation where that wasn’t done,” Sir John reflects. “But he was monosyllabically proud.”

He continues: “The main thing my dad taught me was to look for something that is missing in the world and then fill the gap – this was what he did when starting his own businesses.

I’m quite often asked to talk to audiences about entrepreneurship and I always say to them, ‘imagine a fence – the trick is not to look at the wood, it’s to look at the gaps in between’.

Professor Sir John Burn 

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