Meet Our Researchers: Mark Shackleton

What attracted you to medicine?

I always wanted to be doctor. More than this, I have a clear recollection of one evening, as a young boy, standing at the kitchen sink with my grandmother, drying the dishes, and responding to her question ‘what are you going to do when you grow up’ with the answer ‘i am going to cure cancer!’ I know this sounds a little far-fetched, given where I ended up career-wise, but it’s true! I honestly don’t know why I wanted to be a doctor, as there are no other doctors in my family, but I never thought about any other career path.

What did your path look like to get into medicine?

I went directly from secondary school into medical school at university. In retrospect I might have been better suited to the path nowadays typically taken by aspiring doctors of doing a general degree first and then enrolling in medicine as a post-graduate. However, this option wasn’t available in my era. Because I lacked focus and suffered from a serious case of general curiosity about the wide world, I took a year off during my studies and travelled the world with a backpack, engaging all sorts of exotic – and sometimes borderline dangerous – adventures. This not only gave me a lifetime of good dinner party stories, but left me with a resolve to be the best doctor I could be. I never looked back.

How did you get into high mortality rate cancer research?

I would say that I fell into, rather than planned, my career as a researcher in high mortality cancers. At the end of my training in medical oncology, I was working in a clinical unit with a strong research interest in melanoma – the deadliest type of skin cancer. My supervisors offered me a clinical research position developing novel immunotherapies for melanoma – an area I knew little about. However, the work was innovative, interesting and important – I was hooked. Two years later I enrolled in a PhD and started my ‘second career’ as a scientist, focused on cancer research. Following my PhD as well as a period of post-doctoral research in the USA – now about 24 years after starting out in medical school – I started work as an independent oncologist-scientist and quickly realised that the highest priority research questions are found in those diseases, such as high mortality cancers, that contribute most to illness, morbidity and early death.

Why is there a need for more awareness and funding for lesser known cancers?

Lesser known cancers typically attract less interest and less research funding than more common or well-promoted cancers. In part because of this, they contribute collectively, substantially, and disproportionately to the health and economic burden that cancer confers on our community. We need to change this reality if the bang for research buck investment is to be maximised – we should be investing primarily in research of greatest impact potential. The bar is currently and probably quite low for highly impactful improvement in the outcomes of many patients with lesser known or high mortality cancers, but a relative lack of research investment in these cancers means that we don’t yet know how to get over that bar.

What do you enjoy doing outside of practising medicine?

l like exercising on my rowing machine and throwing around some weights, but finding the time can be challenging. I offset these healthy pursuits with an interest in sampling local boutique craft beers. Finding time for this always seems less challenging.