Françoise Meunier had already won distinctions as a medical researcher in Belgium when she was invited in 1991 to switch to organising research Europe-wide. Since then, she has built up one of the leading cancer centres in the world.
Inspired to take up medicine by her father – “a Belgian country surgeon of the old school” – she went from medical school in Brussels to work at the renowned Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels, where she specialised in tackling invasive fungal infections in cancer patients. She was impressed by the pioneering approach she found there to clinical trials, and after a Fulbright scholarship had allowed her to pursue her research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, she returned to Bordet to become head of its infectious disease department.
She was 41 when another career path opened up. Meunier was offered the post of director-general of the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer. The EORTC was established in the 1960s as a pan-European academic clinical research organisation, with the distinction of a link with the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). But it was very small.
“It was a change of direction”, says Meunier. She decided to take the post because she felt she might achieve more by promoting the work of others than she could by continuing her own research. However, EORTC headquarters boasted only 28 academic researchers at that time – and no clinicians. Meunier needed doctors to design and conduct the cross-border clinical trials that she knew were essential to make real progress. So she went out and got them – by obtaining funding for fellowships in developing clinical-trial methodology. Over the years, EORTC has had 124 fellows, who are now working in hospitals, or the medicines industry, or even the European Medicines Agency.
Quality of life
Some 6,000 new patients are now treated every year in EORTC studies, all of which are managed by a staff of 160 in Brussels. It makes the link between research and the hospital bed, assessing the value of therapies and the quality of life they deliver.
A network of 2,500 oncologists, surgeons, radiotherapists and immunologists provide their services free of charge in more than 300 universities. Funding comes from national cancer charities, the European Commission, private donors, and the pharmaceutical industry. And the US NCI has established a liaison office next door, co-financing the EORTC's analysis centre, which holds data on more than 180,000 patients who have taken part in trials over the past 40 years. This makes possible pioneering work in statistics and methodology, and exploration of computerised management of clinical data.
Meunier's focus, however, is not on administration, but on patients. “My challenge, as well as EORTC's, is to improve the survival and quality of life of all patients plunged from one day to the next in the pangs of death and distress,” she says. There is a strong personal motivation, too: her husband died five years ago from lung cancer – “and he never smoked”, she says.
Her qualifications are numerous – a PhD, a Fellow of the UK Royal College of Physicians and of the European Academy of Cancer Sciences, a member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine. So too are her honorary distinctions – Prix Femmes d'Europe, a Belgian baroness, and multiple prizes and awards in recognition of her contribution to cancer treatment, care and research.
But she says that the most satisfying aspect of her work is continuing to direct the work of an organisation that makes a real impact on people's lives.
Her decision to return to Europe early in her career was partly because she values the culture and diversity of Europe. But her determination to keep pushing EORTC towards new heights – and to win a more conducive European regulatory environment – springs from her belief in the future of high-quality academic clinical research in Europe. “We have the brains, the know-how and expertise”, she says, “but it has to be nurtured and developed”. And one country alone cannot do that, she insists: “To make most of the potential, European co-ordination is required.”