Professor Sir Mike Stratton

How I got into cancer genetics

A pathologist drawn into molecular biology in the mid-1980s and now director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Professor Sir Mike Stratton tells Chrissie Giles how he’ll never stop being fascinated by cells.

(This interview was conducted in 2011. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the essential subjects and salary guide sections.)

Why did you study medicine?

As a teenager I was keenly interested in biology. For example, I was fascinated by the then novel notion that mitochondria were ancient infectious microorganisms with which we were all now living in cooperative and peaceful harmony, and wooed my future wife with tales of such extraordinary phenomena. I was excited by the notion of doing biological experiments to reveal such marvels. Indeed, I entered medicine thinking that medical practice would naturally and inevitably entail asking intriguing questions about human biology and disease. And in some senses it is like that. However, during much of the period I spent as a junior doctor I felt frustrated at the distance there was between thinking about the mysteries of normality and those of disease.

What is a pathologist, and why did you become one?

A pathologist is a doctor who studies the causes and effects of disease. A histopathologist looks at cells and tissues under the microscope to identify causes of disease at the cell level.

As a pathologist, one mostly spends time looking down the microscope at diseased tissues. Peering into this hidden world provides you with profound and powerful insights into the ways disease is generated. You see order and disorder. Indeed, although there is considerable ugliness there is sometimes awful beauty in the way cells conspire to orchestrate life-threatening conditions. Pathology was certainly inspiring and thought-provoking. Nevertheless, it was still at arm’s length from the real action.

What kinds of things do you look at?

About half the samples I was asked to look at were from tumours of various types. At the time we already knew that all cancers arose from a single cell that was behaving badly, with loss of normal growth control, because of abnormalities in its DNA. As a young doctor straining to do research, encountering the diverse patterns of abnormal cell proliferation in cancer down the microscope almost inevitably drove me to speculate on the invisible abnormalities in the DNA within those blue cancer cell nuclei that were responsible for all this. I could not imagine a more direct search for fundamental biological insight than this endeavour.

At this time, in 1984, the revolution in recombinant DNA technology was having major impact and I moved to the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) to do a PhD using this technology to explore the genetics of cancer.

I was hooked on cancer genetics from that point. After my PhD I went back to medicine for two years to qualify as a consultant histopathologist, but subsequently returned to the ICR to begin work on the genetics of breast cancer susceptibility.

What’s the best thing about your job?

It has become of almost mystical fascination to me that you can look down a microscope and see the misbehaving cells of a tumour, and then delve into their nuclei to pick out, from the thousands of millions of bases of DNA, the few that are mutated and cause the abnormal proliferation.

I still occasionally look down a microscope and make a stab at diagnosing the type of cancer present, but obviously would not seriously trust my judgement on this any more. I no longer practise as a pathologist but I have a huge amount of respect for those who do. When one has looked down a microscope every day for years those images of a private, subterranean world become second nature, and they remain with me.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton is director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and co-leader of the Cancer Genome Project.

Adapted from ‘Wellcome News 66’.

Salary guide (2017)

For a doctor with specialist pathology training, your salary will begin at around £30,000, potentially rising to £70,000 with experience (Plotr). 

Essential subjects (2017)

To become a pathologist, you’ll need to do a medicine degree first, which generally requires at least three As at A level, including two sciences, and often passing other entrance tests too. Find out more about studying medicine


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in June 2012 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Cell biology, Genetics and genomics, Microbiology, Careers, Health, infection and disease
Careers From Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development