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From Bench to Bedside - Dr Robert Weinkove

23 May 2013

Dr Robert Weinkove understands better than most the connections between the 'real' world of sick people and frightened families, and the academic world of lab coats and scientific research. He experiences both, in his roles as Consultant Haematologist at Capital & Coast District Health, and Clinical Research Fellow at the Malaghan Institute.

After basic medical training in Cambridge, London and Hannover, Dr Weinkove says he first became a Haematologist after writing a list of each medical specialty and crossing off the ones he wasn't keen on. Haematology [the study of diseases of the blood] was left.

"This worked out very well for me," he says. "Haematologists diagnose and treat a wide variety of blood disorders including leukaemias and lymphomas, clotting disorders and anaemias. I love the combination of laboratory and clinical work that haematology involves."

As a Haematologist, Dr Weinkove is also involved in the care of patients having bone marrow transplants, which are essentially transplants of the entire immune system.

The minor variations that each of us has in our 20,000 genes are both a source of wonder, and a huge challenge for Dr Weinkove. These variations create differences such as our hair colour and height. They also mean that each person's immune system is different.

"To find an unrelated blood donor for a bone marrow transplant, we have to search international databases of over 12 million volunteers. We often find just one or two suitable donors, and sometimes none at all. For research, we have to take account of the variation in our immune systems to find treatments that are effective for most, if not all, individuals."

Even if a suitable donor can be found, a bone marrow transplant is not without difficulties. "Although bone marrow transplants can be life-saving, they can have unpredictable and sometimes fatal consequences such as severe infections," he says. "I expect that during my career, new immune therapies will allow us to cure blood cancers without the toxicities of bone marrow transplants. This was an important reason for me to come to the Malaghan Institute to learn more about immunology."

At the Malaghan Institute, Dr Weinkove's doctoral research involved activating a type of immune cell to help patients fight chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. His findings were published in the Journal Haematologica in March 2013.

Dr Weinkove is now involved in research projects to improve the outcome in infections after chemotherapy, and to activate the immune system against cancer and infections. "The immune system is often compromised in patients with cancer, particularly after strong chemotherapies. The goal of our vaccine research is to find new ways to boost the body's own immune responses against cancer and infection."

Although it can be demanding on time, combining research and clinical work has its rewards. "Research typically requires months or years of work between groundbreaking discoveries. In my clinical work I see patients and their families every day, which brings rewards on a frequent basis, and occasionally sadness."

It is good news for cancer patients the world over that Dr Weinkove realised using his home chemistry set to copper-plate silver five pence coins (cunningly making them look like two pence ones) was not going to be a successful career option.

Dr Weinkove is a fantastic asset to the Malaghan Institute, seamlessly bridging the worlds of medicine and research, and we are grateful to have him on our team.