Meet Stephen Shalet the Society’s 2021 Jubilee Medal Lecturer

Professor Shalet is an Honorary Consultant Endocrinologist at the Christie Hospital, Manchester and Emeritus Professor of Endocrinology at the University of Manchester. His main research interests are late endocrine effects following treatment of cancers, pituitary disorders and in particular abnormalities of growth hormone secretion. In our latest interview, he talks about his career, the importance of keeping patient care at the forefront, complemented with an anecdote or two.

Tell us a little about your career path

I completed a BSc in Physiology at London University and qualified in medicine at the Royal London Hospital. My medical training posts in London and Bristol were followed by an appointment as Research Fellow in Endocrinology at the Christie Hospital, Manchester. I formally retired in 2005 but carried on seeing patients until around 2010. Now all I really do is I teach, I like the subject, so it’s not really work, it’s enjoyable. Occasionally, I referee a paper and participate in data safety monitoring boards. I still do a moderate amount of that work, which keeps me in the loop in terms of what’s going on in the field.

“Although I’d never done any research, the focus there was on childhood cancers. The survival figures for kids with cancer had massively increased but now these patients were having growth and puberty problems. That’s why an endocrinologist was needed there.”

What inspired you into research?

I always liked endocrinology, the science is very attractive. At first it makes logical sense, the pituitary controls the thyroid, the thyroid sends a message, the pituitary changes, but then hold on there’s the hypothalamus and it’s that complexity that makes the science really attractive. Clinically, you can have long-term relationships with patients. When qualified, I knew I wanted to do endocrinology but I was then doing a medical registrar job in Bristol and after attending a course on endocrinology, I realised I knew nothing. So I decided if that’s what I wanted to do, I had better learn some and then a Research Fellow position came up in Manchester – and that’s how I got started.

Although I’d never done any research, the focus there was on childhood cancers. The survival figures for kids with cancer had massively increased but now these patients were having growth and puberty problems. That’s why an endocrinologist was needed there.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Clinical practice is what matters, I care about the patients. I’ve always cared about their outcomes. I also enjoy teaching and research. Those are the three components that I need and enjoy and of course they interact. At the end of the clinic, we all used to have discussions where you’d bring the rest of the team up to date, think about what we don’t know, why we don’t know it and how could we know it? That’s all part of the teaching training and research, thinking as well as doing the best for patients.

Has anyone particularly influenced your career?

I can’t tell you that I had a specific mentor but Colin Beardwell was a very good role model. He cared about patient outcome, was intelligent and an excellent teacher. He didn’t have an ego problem and was happy to see a younger colleague develop.

I’d also seen bad guys along the way, really unimpressive, and that showed me who I didn’t wish to become. I tried to feed off the bad guys and I knew I never wanted to be like that.

“At one point in Manchester, we published the worst surgical results for acromegaly in the world. At that time six surgeons did the operating instead of one. You need one because the number of cases isn’t high enough for six to obtain the volume of experience.”

What are you looking forward to at SfE BES 2021 in Edinburgh?

My lecture will look back over my career and research, and include an anecdote or two! When you get to my age, you have friends to catch up with, you may have known them 30 or 40 years and only have that once a year chat but I look forward to it.

I have a funny Edinburgh story from years ago. I flew from Manchester to Edinburgh and was waiting for a taxi outside the airport. A taxi driver approached me and asked something that sounded like ‘do you want sex’? The whole queue could hear as I replied, as reasonably as I could, that I did not want sex, it was November and very cold, but I thanked him very much for the offer. At that point the taxi driver clarified the taxi was a six seater and he wanted to know whether there was six people in my party! That was one of my most memorable Edinburgh conversations.

What do you think are the main challenges in your field right now?

Late effects of cancer treatment is still a challenge. You’re always catching up as these can occur up to 10 years after treatment. There needs to be expert resource available to treat the problems as they arise. Another issue is transition to adult life. Bridging the gap between paediatric and adult care can be very difficult. New more targeted treatments such as proton beam therapy will still cause endocrine damage, which may need to be tackled differently.

What do you think will be the next major changes for endocrinology?

More centralisation of key procedures. You need real expertise for these procedures, which may not come up very often around the country, centralisation means that volume of experience is contained in a centre of excellence. Although this means fewer endocrinologists get that experience, we need to make sure that patients are getting the best care.

At one point in Manchester, we published the worst surgical results for acromegaly in the world. At that time six surgeons did the operating instead of one. You need one because the number of cases isn’t high enough for six to obtain the volume of experience. Now Manchester has one surgeon and the results are as good as anywhere else. That’s why I think centralisation of certain key procedures will be better for patient care.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?

Try to get a reasonable understanding of yourself. I think that’s the journey. Not everybody is destined to do lots of research, just as some people are better suited to clinical practice whilst others are destined, particularly in a subject like endocrinology, to be lab-based. You should try to work out what combination of clinical work, teaching and research works best for you. 

You can attend Professor Stephen Shalet’s Medal Lecture, “Cancer treatment endocrinopathies and growth hormone status throughout life” on Wednesday 10 November at 4:40pm.

Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2021.