Onur Pinar / Wellcome Sanger Institute and The Royal Society

Peter Campbell honoured with Darwin Medal by the Royal Society

The award, created in memory of Charles Darwin, recognises Dr Campbell’s outstanding achievements and dedication to advancing knowledge and understanding of the genomic roots of cancer and how cells evolve over a person’s lifetime.

Email newsletter

News and blog updates

Sign up

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is delighted that Dr Peter Campbell, Head of the Institute’s Cancer, Ageing and Somatic Mutation research programme, has been awarded the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal. The biennial award, first given in 1890, celebrates research of acknowledged distinction in evolution, population biology, organismal biology and biological diversity.

The medal is bestowed upon researchers who have made significant discoveries in their field through creativity, innovation, and intellectual rigor. Dr Campbell’s research focuses on unravelling the genetic changes our cells acquire as we go through life, and how these mutations are related to ageing, cancer and other disease processes.

Dr Campbell has had a major influence in the fields of cancer genomics and how cells evolve across a person’s lifetime, known as somatic evolution. Dr Campbell’s innovative and influential contributions have formalised the study of somatic mutation and selection; exposing the roots of tumour development. His role in helping to lead the work of the International Cancer Genome Consortium has enabled the global research community to build a coherent understanding of the landscape of mutation in cancer genomes at the highest possible resolution.

Through combining cutting-edge DNA sequencing, cell biology and data science, Dr Campbell and his team have unpicked many of the landmark events a clone goes through in its transition from a normal cell to a full-blown cancer. The first steps on this journey to cancer often start early in life, during childhood or even during foetal life, and sow the seeds for further events to accumulate over the next few decades of life. While one person’s cancer can look much like another person’s cancer under the microscope, at the level of the genome, every person’s cancer is unique. By assessing the whole genomes of thousands of cancers, it is now possible to define the trajectories of how cancer evolves, how different lifestyles and exposures shape those trajectories, and how these patterns determine how a cancer responds to therapy.

In more recent work, Dr Campbell and his team have begun to explore the patterns of somatic mutations outside of cancer. This work has demonstrated that mutations can contribute to our understanding of ageing and of metabolic and inflammatory diseases.

“I am thrilled to be honoured by the Royal Society. I vividly remember the day I twigged to the beauty and simplicity of Darwin’s model – aged 16, hunched over an ecosystem of insects and plants in the native forest behind my high school in New Zealand. My biology teacher nudged me see the natural variation in individuals within a species, its genetic origins and how the many threats to each individual would select for the most resilient. That my own research should be recognised receiving a medal named for Darwin is truly humbling.

“Understanding the life history of DNA damage that leads to cancer development is central to my scientific approach. By identifying and unravelling the events that drive tumour formation, we can truly understand this complex disease, enabling clinicians to make accurate diagnoses and select the most effective treatments. Revealing the cellular processes and environmental factors that cause genetic damage will also inform future prevention strategies. But the scale of science required to deliver such fine-grained genomic insights is a truly global endeavour and I would like to thank everyone who I have worked with for their generosity and innovation. This award is a recognition of their dedication and creativity.”

Dr Peter Campbell, Head of the Cancer, Ageing and Somatic Mutation research programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

The award not only recognises Dr Campbell’s scientific accomplishments but also his generous leadership style and mentorship. Under his leadership the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes Consortium (PCAWG) led 1,300 scientists and clinicians in 37 countries in exploring more than 2,500 whole cancer genome sequences from across the world. In keeping with his commitment to open-access foundational research, PCAWG has delivered the largest publicly available whole-genome dataset in the cancer genomics field. The suite of analysis tools generated by the project has also been made freely available to the global research community to power future discoveries.

Dr Campbell’s collaborative and supportive approach has nurtured the next generation of genomic research leaders both within the Sanger Institute and around the world. He mentors young scientists as they transition from being post-doctoral fellows to independent group leaders by enabling them to run their own small groups with full access to the Institute’s research facilities and support from senior scientific leaders.

“Peter is an exceptional scientist whose profound contributions have shaped our understanding of the accumulation of genetic changes that lead to cancer and to how the DNA in all of our cells changes over time. Most recipients of the Darwin Medal, like Darwin himself, have focused on the evolution of different species on our planet. Peter’s research has revealed that many of the same evolutionary principles and processes also apply to the cells within all multicellular organisms over their lifetimes. This fundamental knowledge is having direct clinical impact now, but promises to be of even broader impact in the future. Peter’s research has continuously pushed the boundaries of technology and knowledge, changing the ‘art of the possible’ for an entire research community. I am delighted that the Royal Society have honoured Peter with the Darwin Medal to celebrate his remarkable achievements.”

Professor Matthew Hurles, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute

The Darwin Medal will be formally presented to Dr Campbell at the Royal Society’s anniversary day on 30 November, a distinguished event that brings together renowned scientists, esteemed researchers, and influential figures from around the world.

More information

About the Royal Society

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. https://royalsociety.org/

Follow the Royal Society on Twitter (@royalsociety) or on Facebook facebook.com/theroyalsociety