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Professor Willie Hamilton CBE

Professor Collects CBE from Buckingham Palace

A Professor who has helped make great strides in life-saving cancer diagnosis in the UK has collected his CBE from Buckingham Palace.

The award was announced in the New Year’s Honours List in December and Professor Willie Hamilton has been to collect his award for his services to cancer diagnosis.

Willie of the University of Exeter Medical School, says his profound deafness gave him more time to focus on his research away from a busy career as a GP. He recently made headlines when he regained his hearing, thanks to a successful cochlear implant.

Now 60, Willie is managing over £15 million in research projects, all with the aim of getting the right cancer tests to the right patient at the right time. That means more accurate and potentially earlier and life-saving treatment for those who need it.

Willie said “It is an absolute honour to have received this CBE, which is recognition of my whole team at Exeter. It’s so gratifying to have made a real impact on cancer survival rates in the UK. We’re looking forward to an exciting year ahead.”

Reflecting back to significant events in his career, Willie believes his career has been helped by the fact that he regained his hearing with a successful cochlear implant.
“Getting my hearing back has saved me, I think,” said Willie. “This year has been exceptional, and we’re now leading some really exciting projects that mean I need to be able to work with many international groups. I couldn’t keep travelling, just so we could be face-to-face allowing me to lip read.”

That exceptional year has seen a £2 million donation from the Denis and Mireille Gillings Foundation to improve cancer diagnosis in general practice, with a trial launching in Devon in 2019.

It builds on tools Willie and his team have developed for all the major cancers, which help doctors assess the chance of an underlying cancer attached to complex combinations of symptoms far more easily.

Willie has also been instrumental in reducing the threshold of risk in a patient’s symptoms at which GPs will trigger a cancer investigation. He was clinical lead in the highly influential NICE guidance, ‘Suspected Cancer: recognition and referral (2015)’ which governs around £1 billion of annual NHS spending on cancer diagnosis.

“In the last decade, we’ve seen the number of people being tested for possible cancer increase considerably – and we know earlier diagnosis saves lives,” said Willie. “That does mean that the NHS has had to invest millions in both the financial cost of testing and in having the staff to do that and to treat people – but the reward is enormous. Thousands of people are walking around in Britain today who would have been dead without this work.”

“The UK has historically lagged well behind the rest of Europe on cancer survival, but we’re starting to turn that around. It’s truly gratifying to be part of that. It is my vision to make us a world leading centre for cancer diagnosis.”

Willie now receives funding from the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute of Health Research and Cancer Research UK. He also sits on several national cancer diagnosis advisory panels.

He moved to Exeter in 1983, and worked at both the Barnfield Hill and Mount Pleasant practices as a GP, initially commuting to Bristol for his research role. Then, in 2010, he took up a Professorship at the University of Exeter. For Willie, it was a clear-cut choice. “I love Exeter – I’ve lived here since 1983 and it’s a fantastic place to live and bring up kids. I love the freedom at the University. I’ve had tremendous support here.”

Date: 8 March 2019

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