Professor Alan B Rickinson
Doctor of Science, honoris causa (2021)
For all of his many career-long achievements, global in impact and reach, Professor Alan Rickinson cuts a very approachable figure. He is gentle, even humble, in disposition and considers himself lucky to have gotten as far as he has in such a fine and scholarly company. With such a genial aspect and generous outlook towards his colleagues, Professor Rickinson embodies the best of the scientific life in service to the common good.
Professor Rickinson took his PhD in cell biology at the University of Cambridge in 1969 with a generalised trajectory in cancer research. He found his professional pathway forward, firstly in Australia as a research fellow at the University of Sydney where he began to learn his trade and realise the challenges of building a career in science. At that point, while flipping through the job postings at the back of Nature in December 1971, he saw an advertisement for a Lectureship in Cellular Pathology at the University of Bristol, UK. Being offered and accepting this post the following year would prove to be the most significant move of his scientific life. It brought him under the mentorship of Sir Anthony Epstein, the person who a few years earlier had led the team
which discovered the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV, formally called human herpesvirus 4), the first human virus to be identified as causally linked to certain types of cancer.
He was entering a rapidly-expanding field, ripe for discovery, where everything seemed new. The range of human cancers linked to the virus quickly grew from the first example, Burkitt Lymphoma among children in equatorial Africa, to include others, in particular nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a
tumour seen worldwide but appearing at highest incidence in people of Cantonese descent. The connection between Rickinson’s work and that of collaborators in Hong Kong was forged in those early days and has endured ever since. Besides its geographic reach, research on EBV required the integration of three scientific disciplines that, at the time, were still considered to be separate specialities — virology, immunology, and oncology. Professor Rickinson has coined a delightful metaphor which captures the emerging crossdisciplinarity of those exciting days: he felt he was “placing three different countries on the same map”.
During a fruitful decade at Bristol, interspersed with a sabbatical year at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Rickinson and his Australian colleague Denis Moss discovered the main component of the human immune response, the T cell response, that controlled Epstein-
Barr virus infection. Thereafter the work went on, gathering pace after Rickinson moved to head up Cancer Research UK’s new laboratories at the University of Birmingham. There his team identified the main targets of that T cell response and showed that cancers such as Burkitt Lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma lacked some of those targets, thereby avoiding immune control. That spurred on many years of research at the basic-clinical interface, particularly with colleagues in Hong Kong, to develop and test new immune therapies for EBV-associated cancers.
Professor Rickinson is now regarded as one of the most eminent of EBV researchers worldwide. According to Professor Rickinson’s colleague and HKBU biochemist, Dr Lung Hong-lok, Professor Rickinson’s earliest research remains foundational to the field and remains “required reading” for students and researchers on EBV and related viruses. For example, Rickinson’s work showing how the virus hides its presence in certain cancer cells has uncovered ways in which the same virus can persist as an innocent “latent infection” in individuals who carry the virus for life. Determining how and under what conditions EBV and other similar viruses “run silent” — that is, initially escaping detection from the host’s immune response only to re-emerge at a later point — has been extremely important to the development and timing of immunotherapies enhancing cancer patients’ immunological responses at different stages of the disease.
Another critical discovery has been the importance of Rickinson’s research to the on-going development of EBV vaccines. These have been clinically proven to stimulate T-cell responsiveness in afflicted patients: notably, when establishing clinically-tested thresholds necessary to the drug therapies for HIV-AIDS; or, more recently, when perfecting the imaging agents used to diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer and other similar carcinomas. Professor Rickinson’s most recent work has influenced clinical practice around agespecific susceptibilities of teens and younger adults to massive immunological responses as well as the identification of
“early detection” inhibitor proteins fighting viruses.
Taken as a whole body of work, the seriousness of Professor Rickinson’s research has brought him esteem, numerous awards, and important affiliations throughout his career at research centres and medical schools worldwide. Even as the subfield of EBV research has scaled up from national to global importance, Professor Rickinson clearly has enjoyed working with his colleagues. Professor Rickinson’s knack for mentorship has remained buoyed throughout by what he calls his “natural optimism” which has offset stubborn challenges posed by the science itself and also achieved the cohesion of strong and brilliant personalities bonded by a shared purpose.
Professor Rickinson’s own character perhaps best evinces the strength of his sustained leadership of the global medical essential goodness of humanity”, Professor Rickinson seems perfectly happy to cede his own ground and authority. This humility of aspect is most winning, especially when he describes the talent of younger scholars: “don’t be afraid to cherish the younger and better”. This simple phrase encapsulates the mien of the effective mentor, one casting attention toward the mesh of human relations carrying the science forward rather than upon him or herself. Professor
Rickinson’s colleagues and former students have no doubt reciprocated his generosity of spirit in approach to the training of their own students over the years.
In sum, the gentleness of Professor Rickinson’s approach, like his direct and affable style, belies the complexity and sophistication of his active engagement with cancer research along the cutting-edge of scientific inquiry across decades.
Very few among us can report that they have directly facilitated the achievement of impacts and outcomes that have affected many millions of lives for the better. Professor Alan Rickinson is among these rare few. His presence before us today confers great honour — not only upon Hong Kong Baptist University but also to generations of scholars and students, friends and colleagues who count themselves lucky enough to have known him personally. And what of those countless who have recovered from disease, at least in part, because of Professor Rickinson’s anonymous vision? This, I submit, is the greatest impact of all: to have one’s lifework established as the quiet truth of successful practice, affording the gift of hope.