NEWSMAKER: Enter the medicine man - Professor Alex Markham, Chief executive, Cancer Research UK

Tania Mason

At last week's EGM of the UK's biggest charity, Cancer Research UK, new chief executive Professor Alex Markham found himself in the enviable position of delivering nothing but good news.

He cheerfully defied sceptics about the controversial marriage of Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) and Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) with the news that income was up by 9 per cent on the pre-merger year, and research spending up 16 per cent.

"Of course, I'm in the unusually privileged position of being able to boast about it without the complication of having had anything to do with it," grins Markham in his self-effacing northern way. He officially started his new job on Monday, the same day the charity launched its government-funded anti-smoking ads attacking the tobacco industry's marketing practices (Third Sector, 17 September).

His appointment is a relief to the organisation, which has struggled to pin down a new boss since the merger in February 2002. The former head of CRC, Gordon McVie, left abruptly in July 2002, and his ICRF counterpart, Sir Paul Nurse, lasted five months as chief executive before quitting to be president of New York's Rockefeller University. Hopes are high that Markham will bring stable, non-partisan leadership to the role.

A career scientist and eminent cancer doctor, Markham isn't used to the media spotlight and seems a tad bewildered that everyone suddenly wants a piece of him. As he is rushed from one journalist to the next on the morning of the meeting, he mutters helplessly that he was supposed to be somewhere else an hour ago. He confesses he will be "glad when this is over and I can get back to the day job".

In today's commercial climate, where the brand is king and budgets are under the cosh, it is a shrewd move by CRUK to install another scientist at its helm, pacifying supporters and medics alike. And Markham's managerial experience in previous jobs at ICI, Zeneca, and latterly Leeds University where he was professor of medicine, means he has the organisational know-how. "I feel reasonably competent - I have no delusions of adequacy, but I have been around the block a few times."

Crucially, Markham's appointment has won approval from the research community.

Karol Sikora, professor of cancer medicine at Imperial College, London, says the medical profession views his selection positively, not least because "he comes with no baggage - he's not even from London".

Markham was already researching the causes of the disease when his father developed gastric cancer, but thanks to a "very clever surgeon and lots of luck", he lived for 10 more years after the first diagnosis. Markham is determined to dispel the myth that cancer means immediate death.

"There are around a million people in the UK still alive five years after they were first diagnosed and it is my mission to get this up to 1.5 million over five years."

This will be achieved through better public education about prevention, more early detection - including national screening for bowel cancer - and new therapies.

He says he will take every opportunity to get the prevention message across, whether in collaboration with the Government - as in the anti-smoking ads and the SunSmart skin cancer campaign - or through corporate partnerships such as CRUK's endorsement of Nivea sunscreens. Markham passionately defends CRUK's acceptance of government money for cancer prevention campaigns and dismisses any suggestion that CRUK is getting too cosy with the establishment.

"We would never lose our independence," he says. "However, we have to recognise that controlling cancer cannot be achieved without full involvement of the NHS, which I don't regard as a political organisation."

He applauds the Government's recent efforts to correct Britain's woeful cancer mortality record, pointing out that it ploughed an extra £500m into cancer care last year. For the first time, death rates have fallen over the past two years.

"For every £5m that CRUK and the Medical Research Council has spent, the NHS has spent £95m. So rather than being compromised by a relationship with the NHS, we are getting fantastic leverage from our limited funds. For the first time in my lifetime, everyone involved in cancer treatment is rowing in the same direction."

This "outbreak of love and admiration" is even shared by the smaller cancer charities, claims Markham, thanks to their membership of the National Cancer Research Institute. "Historically, a lot of other cancer charities might have been suspicious - that the big fish that would lock out the little fish - but they don't feel disenfranchised because they all have a seat at the table."

As a cancer expert, Markham says he saw the merger as a "no-brainer", adding it has been executed in a way any commercial organisation would envy. And he denies that the creation of such a mammoth beast has alienated individual donors: "They like the idea that CRUK can influence policy more effectively, that their fiver is being exerted at government level and with international bodies."

While his robust defence of his new employer - which will reward his loyalty with £130,000 a year - is hardly surprising, surely he has his own drum to beat? What will he change?

"All I can say is, God preserve us from new chief executives who want to stamp their authority and make their mark. What I bring will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. If it ain't bust, don't fix it."

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