Interview with Deborah Gilbert, Chief Executive of Bowel & Cancer Research

Deborah Gilbert is the chief executive of Bowel and Cancer Research. Here, we learn more about Bowel and Cancer Research, including their aims, challenges and milestones.

Can you start by telling us what Bowel & Cancer Research is and its background?

Bowel & Cancer Research is a registered charity and the leading bowel research authority. It was founded in the 1990s as the London Immunotherapy Cancer Trust by an eminent colorectal surgeon at the Royal London Hospital. 

Today, we fund the best new research anywhere across the UK, and support our next generation of research experts through our specialist PhD funding programme. 

We involve patients and members of the public in all aspects of research, from identifying priorities to writing research material that patients will understand all the way through to disseminating the results of research to the general public.

Deborah Gilbert

Deborah Gilbert

Chief executive of Bowel and Cancer Research

Bowel and Cancer Research logo

What are the core aims of Bowel & Cancer Research?

Bowel & Cancer Research aims to save and change lives by shining a light on bowel cancer and bowel disease. We fund path-finding research, which has a clear relevance to saving or improving the lives of people with bowel cancer and other bowel diseases, by improving diagnosis or treatment.

We are an inclusive charity that aims to bring people closer to the process of research and develop engagement with science and we challenge the taboos that exist around bowel cancer and other bowel diseases.

How do you plan on reaching these aims?

We will achieve our aims by funding the very best research – we are supported in this by a specialist committee whose members come from a variety of research disciplines, including stem cell and molecular biology, pathology, surgery, motility and neuromodulation, immunology, nanotechnology and medical statistics.

This group of experts ensures that all the research we fund meets strict quality criteria and has an ambition to make a difference for people diagnosed with bowel cancer or bowel disease. We run an active programme to involve the public in research and support their involvement in research that we fund as well as studies and trials run by other national organisations.

Can you tell us a little about your role and how it impacts Bowel & Cancer Research?

In my role as chief executive, I am responsible for every aspect of the function of the charity, from developing our grant giving, our patient involvement work and our awareness campaigns and fundraising. As a small charity, we have an incredibly busy staff team who work above and beyond to ensure that we are utterly professional, flexible and responsive to the needs of patients, people living with bowel disease and our wonderful supporters, without whom we would not be able to do the work.

Do you have any examples of recent breakthroughs in research that you can tell us about?

It’s increasingly realised that the gut has a role to play in obesity and type II diabetes. B&CR has supported a world leading project in this respect, the results of which were published in GUT. We have also successfully collaborated with another charitable foundation to take the findings from this trial into an early human study, which should start this year. 

One of the major features of living with IBD (Colitis or Crohn’s disease most commonly) is pain. It can be utterly debilitating and people with the disease have highlighted this as a major problem.

Our funding for innovative work with human tissue at the National Bowel Centre has discovered the mechanisms for pain within the bowel. This work has led to awards for the young scientist who pioneered the laboratory technique and publication in the journal PAIN. If chemotherapy has to be used over a period of time the cancer becomes resistant. We have supported work investigating whether a therapy, currently used for another disease, may be useful in overcoming this. Our initial funding enabled the team to generate the results to apply for more funding to further their investigations and publish their results.

How has Bowel & Cancer Research grown and where would you like to see it in five years?

Bowel & Cancer Research has grown from a very small local charity into a key national funder in its speciality – new ideas, and our next generation of research experts. 

During this time, its reputation has grown and it has attracted top experts to help it with its grant making; it is now an important national funder. 

Over the next 5 years I would like to see Bowel & Cancer Research further grow its reputation as a funder, with our initial support being viewed by larger funders as an accreditation of the quality of a research proposal. I would like our public and patient involvement work to grow to a position where we can comfortably support any national trial with high quality involvement and are thought of by researchers and the public alike as the first port of call for public involvement in research.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Fundraising! When we’re in the same space as Cancer Research UK and other large charities, making enough noise to get ourselves noticed, with a fraction of the budget, is never easy.

What have been yours and Bowel & Cancer Research’s biggest achievement?

Our support of the National Bowel Research Centre, which was developed with our funding and opened by HM The Queen in 2013. It’s running national and international clinical trials, supporting the innovation of medical devices and doing ground-breaking work in one of the best equipped human tissue laboratories in the country.

Do you have any other thoughts or comments?

If any readers share our vision and ambition and are inspired to help, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to get in touch with me directly at deborah@bowelcancerresearch.org. You can also hear me in BMI Healthcare’s Bowel Cancer podcast as part of the panel.


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