The brilliant mind Collaboration: Professor John Forbes (right) with colleagues (from left to right) Professor Raymond Snyder, Professor Michael Green and Professor Alan Coates. The four men established the Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group.
Celebration: Professor John Forbes in expansive mood while talking about his ground-breaking work on breast cancer and its treatment.
Team: Professor John Forbes at work. He emphasised the collaboration of scientists in the Hunter, in Australia and around the world to achieve significant improvements in breast cancer treatment and outcomes for women.
TweetFacebook An end to breast cancer deaths ‘so close you can touch it’Professor John Forbes on the 40-year career that helped change medical historyHE’S been recognised asone of the world’s leading scientific researchers and acknowledged with awards for his outstanding contribution to breast cancer research.
But Professor John Forbes, who has retired as director of research at the Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group (ANZBCTG), said he would have been content to spendthe past four decades “without any recognition at all”, because awards were never the aim.
“We were always working towards a world without breast cancer. That was our aim,” Professor Forbes said.
Colleagues including his co-founders of the breast cancer trials group –Professor Alan Coates, Professor Michael Green and Professor Raymond Snyder – and University of Newcastle Vice-Chancellor Professor Caroline McMillen, celebrated his career at a dinner in Newcastle on Friday.
On Sunday, as he prepared to celebrate his grandson’s sixth birthday party, Professor Forbes said it was “wonderful” to have handed over responsibility for ANZBCTG, although he will continue to attend meetings of the group.
His retirement from direct involvement with patients comes as mollecular research promises direct and positive consequences for breast cancer research and treatment.
“We’re on the threshhold of a glittering era in medical science,” he said, along with the prediction there would be no more breast cancer deaths by the 2030s.
“It’s so close you can touch it,” he said.
Professor Forbes and his three colleagues formed the breast cancer trial group nearly 40 years ago because of the rates of breast cancer in women, the limited nature of treatments and the beliefthat much more could be done.
His many career highlights include chairing the Australian and New Zealand arm of the International Breast Cancer Intervention Study (IBIS I) clinical trial, which established that the drug tamoxifen was not only a treatment for breast cancer, but could prevent half of new breast cancers and significantly reduce the rates of secondary cancer in women.
One in eight Australian women will develop breast cancer before the age of 85. More than 14,000 women have participated in ANZCRTG trials. The group’s research program involves collaborating with more than 700 researchers at 84 institutions in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2015 Professor Forbes was named NSW outstanding cancer researcher of the year. In 2014 and 2015 he was named one of “the world’s most influential scientific minds”by Thomson Reuters, based on having research cited most frequently by fellow researchers.
Professor Forbes, who retired in 2016 as professor of surgical oncology at the University of Newcastleand director of surgical oncology at the Calvary Mater Newcastle Hospital, said collaboration at local, national and international level was the key to improving outcomes for women.
“We’ve always had a deep strong collaboration with members of our group, and my contribution has been to guide the discussion and be aware of what is happening around the world,” he said.
“We also get input from patients. I’m always interested in what patients tell us.”
The arc of his 40-year career in breast cancer research, from a time in the 1970s when he believed breast cancer was “the most horrible infliction on society”, to today when he predicts an end to breast cancer deaths, had been an extraordinary gift, he said.
“It’s been wonderful to be part of history, and I was fortunate to learn from two wonderful people.”
He acknowledged the help of former University of Melbourne Professor Peter Morris and retired Cardiff specialist Michael Baum who “took me under his wing”, as formative influences.
He also acknowledged wife Jenny and their two daughters who contributed to his understanding of the need for collaboration to achieve goals.
“Women are just so important in our world. The flair and tone of their contribution is all about achieving a better outcome for everyone,” he said.