Cancer biologist and pioneer in cell culture techniques

Born: February 16, 1938;

Died: January 6, 2019

DR R IAN Freshney, who has died aged 80, was a cancer biologist and a pioneer in cell culture techniques who made an important contribution to new approaches for treating cancer patients.

He was born in Paisley, grew up in Ayr and graduated in zoology from Glasgow University in 1960. He started his research career under the supervision of the late Professor John Paul in the department of biochemistry at Glasgow, graduating PhD in 1964.

His early research interests involved the investigation of how enzymes, a specific type of protein, were controlled in cells grown in the laboratory. He moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1964-5, working with Dr Robert Auerbach, investigating how cancer cells interact, develop and grow, before returning to Glasgow where he spent the rest of his scientific career.

Initially at the Beatson Institute, Dr Freshney was appointed as senior lecturer in the then Cancer Research Campaign department of medical oncology in 1981, remaining there until his retirement in 1998. He fulfilled a key role in laboratory administration, particularly at a time of rapid change at the Garscube campus.

Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, who recruited Dr Freshney to the department, has explained that, "Ian joined the department of medical oncology at a critical time. It was just developing a wider range of research interests and required someone with experience to develop and expand the laboratory base. With his special background and skills, together with his links to the Beatson Institute and other cancer research organisations, the department flourished and grew. He was a delightful person to work with, and built the team with great skill."

His research interests turned to growing human tumour cells in the laboratory, with a particular focus on brain and lung tumours. He made important observations on how the growth of cancer cells may be influenced by glucocorticoids, a type of steroid hormone, making the tumour less likely to spread.

Through his position in medical oncology, Dr Freshney's work played a considerable part in shaping subsequent approaches to experimental therapy. He pioneered ways of growing tumour cells in the laboratory, which minimised the need for using animal models, and through this he made an important contribution to new ways of treating cancer patients.

He supervised many PhD students, including clinical fellows, and several have progressed to senior positions in the UK, including Professor Margaret Frame, who is science director of the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh centre and Professor Val Speirs at Aberdeen University.

He was always generous with his time, providing wise advice to colleagues at an early stage in their career and to more senior colleagues who were establishing research programmes and groups when moving to Glasgow. However, he is perhaps best known for his deep understanding of the vagaries of cell culture – a range of techniques that are used worldwide for growing and studying cancer cells in the laboratory.

Notably, many experts consider Dr Freshney's book Culture of Animal Cells, a Manual of Basic Technique, first published in 1983, to be essential reading for those starting in the field. Even in retirement, Dr Freshney continued to work on six subsequent editions. He also edited or co-edited six other books on specialised cell culture. “Ian taught the world how to do tissue culture,” a former colleague has said.

Dr Freshney became president of the European Tissue Culture Society, from where he received a commendation for his outstanding contribution to tissue culture research in 1994. He also taught numerous international basic and specialised cell culture courses. In 2001 he received the Society for In Vitro Biology’s distinguished lifetime achievement award in recognition of his exemplary research achievements and pioneering contributions to the field of cell culture.

Ian Freshney also played a leading role in raising awareness of the extensive problems associated with the misidentification of cell lines through cross contamination. With Dr Amanda Capes-Davis, founding manager and honorary scientist of CellBank Australia, he developed a Register of Misidentified Cell Lines, published in 2010 and now curated by the International Cell Line Authentication Committee (ICLAC).

Dr Freshney gained a national and international reputation for the quality of his teaching, particularly in experimental pathology and cell culture. In an era of rapid technological change in the laboratory, his patient and collegiate approach, his attention to detail, and his wisdom were an example to his many friends and colleagues in Glasgow and elsewhere.

He died at the St Margaret of Scotland Hospice, Clydebank, following illness with prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1963, their daughter, Gillian and son, Norman.