Justin Stebbing is a world-renowned cancer specialist, whose brilliance earned him a professorship and the role of head of oncology at Imperial College Healthcare Trust before the age of 40.
Widely regarded as one of the most talented people in his field, he has carried out ground-breaking research not just into cancer but other diseases, recently identifying one of the best Covid treatments, for example.
He’s also a clinical doctor, loved by his patients and credited by many for having saved their lives after other doctors had given up hope.
But on December 20, a medical disciplinary tribunal suspended him for nine months.
As a result, Professor Stebbing, 50, will not only be unable to care for his 150 patients, but may also lose his contract with Imperial in London.
Justin Stebbing is a world-renowned cancer specialist, whose brilliance earned him a professorship and the role of head of oncology at Imperial College Healthcare Trust before the age of 40
This would put at risk research programmes that include pioneering work on the genetic make-up of cancer cells, which could improve our understanding of risk factors for the disease, and a study that could lead to a blood test for breast cancer.
After the nine months, he will have to ‘demonstrate [to the tribunal] how he has bridged the gaps in insight and remediated fully’.
So how is it that a man so valued by patients and colleagues that he was nicknamed ‘God’ now finds his career on the brink?
His fall from grace began in 2017, when an anonymous whistleblower sent a dossier to the General Medical Council (GMC), alleging that he had unnecessarily tried to save dying patients in a manner that was ‘fundamentally inconsistent’ with their best interests.
It’s taken four years for the GMC’s disciplinary system to investigate the professor and take him through its hearings process, during which time he was suspended by HCA Healthcare, a private health firm for which he also worked.
Last month, the GMC’s Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service panel ruled that his behaviour had breached ‘the very core of the Hippocratic Oath’, and that his fitness to practise was impaired.
The tribunal added that the Oxford-trained doctor had been ‘cavalier’ and prepared to sanction ‘futile’ treatment. He admitted 30 of 36 charges, and was found guilty of three others.
The charges included failing to keep proper records, failing to gain informed consent for treatment from patients, and continuing to treat patients when it was medically futile.
In ‘reflection’ statements he submitted to the tribunal, Professor Stebbing said he had learned many lessons — but insisted that ‘at all times I was working to save lives’.
He described the hearing as a ‘deeply humbling, chastening . . . experience’ and added: ‘I am sorry I made so many mistakes.’
The case against Professor Stebbing was based on 12 patients’ histories. The hearing heard harrowing details of the last days of these patients, many of whom had sought him out after their own doctors had told them there was no more that could be done.
However, as his lawyer pointed out, five of these cases were originated by AXA medical insurance. In only two of those cases had the patient’s family or their solicitor complained.
As the hearing progressed, hundreds of supporters — families and patients he’d treated either on the NHS or privately — rallied to Professor Stebbing’s cause, believing his prosecution was unjust.
Support: Harriet I’Anson, with son Padraic, was treated by Prof Stebbing during pregnancy
Separately, lawyers for Professor Stebbing handed the tribunal 1,000 pages of testimonials from 366 patients, or their family members, and medical colleagues.
Among those appalled at Professor Stebbing’s prosecution are leading medical professionals, such as Dr Alan Barge, a cancer specialist who worked for 12 years at AstraZeneca. As the pharma giant’s head of oncology, he was responsible for developing Iressa, a breakthrough drug to treat advanced lung cancer.
‘As a qualified oncologist, I get contacted by people at least twice a week asking for advice on getting expert help for cancer,’ Dr Barge told Good Health. ‘I often referred them to Professor Stebbing, as he would take on patients who’d been considered at the end of the road treatment-wise and without hope.
‘A close relative of my wife was offered palliative care five years ago, as she was expected to die. She had a rare malignant tumour of the uterus.
‘She went to see Professor Stebbing, who decoded the complex genetic type of her tumour and found it was caused by a BRCA mutation [usually seen in cancers of the breast and ovaries].
‘Professor Stebbing realised that, regardless of its location, her cancer may be treatable using olaparib, a new drug developed for BRCA-related breast cancer. So he trialled it on her, with her full consent and understanding.
‘Today, she is alive and five years free of disease.’
Dr Barge describes the professor as a ‘brilliant’ scientist and clinician who can take new scientific drug data and apply it in clinics, and then bring the insights he’s learnt clinically back to the lab to hone the drug’s development.
‘I would struggle to find anyone else with that ability,’ says Dr Barge. ‘He’s been uniquely able to examine “lost cause” patients’ individual cancers and investigate whether drugs that are used in other settings can help them, even though the drugs aren’t yet licensed or approved for their cancers.
‘He works experimentally, at the very edge of our knowledge. That’s what makes him invaluable to patients,’ says Dr Barge. ‘The world needs him to push scientific boundaries. Instead, the GMC is pursuing this brilliant man who has saved many lives, rather than a host of others who have let lives slip away by following obsolete treatment guidelines.’
Renowned medics and scientists from the UK and around the world wrote in support of Professor Stebbing, stressing the loss to both patients and science if he were unable to work.
Joel Blankson, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the U.S., told the Mail: ‘He is an outstanding physician-scientist. His career is unusual in that he has made major contributions to cancer, HIV and Covid research.
‘The breadth of his innovative, multi-disciplinary research is best illustrated by the fact that he used an artificial intelligence programme to identify baricitinib as a potential drug for the treatment of Covid-19, due to its dual anti-viral/anti-inflammatory properties.’ Professor Stebbing led global studies that showed that the drug reduced mortality in Covid patients with pneumonia — which led to the drug being authorised in the U.S.
‘This is a brilliant example of a scientist going from bench to bedside,’ says Professor Blankson. ‘His work has saved many lives . . . something most physician-scientists can only hope to accomplish.’
Another eminent expert, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Cancer Research Center in the U.S., wrote in a testimonial that ‘it would be a tremendous loss to the field of medicine’ if Professor Stebbing was not allowed to continue his work.
‘Very few people have achieved what he has been able to achieve as a professor, doctor and researcher,’ he wrote. Yet this very success might have played a role in Professor Stebbing’s undoing.
Nicolas Beechey-Newman, a breast cancer surgeon in London told the tribunal: ‘Justin Stebbing has probably achieved more than any other medical oncologist in the UK by a large margin. Perhaps his success has led to professional jealousy and his fault is that he should have been aware of this and managed it better.’
The hearing lambasted Professor Stebbing as coldly ‘arrogant’, and described as ‘deeply troubling’ his statement that ‘you only know when treatment is not succeeding when the patient dies’.
Dr Barge defends him: ‘Clinical colleagues can find him aloof and distant, often because his thinking is so far ahead of theirs. But he’s exactly the opposite with patients. He is extraordinarily competent and caring.’
Harriet I’Anson, 41, a Gloucestershire-based solicitor and mother of three, agrees.
‘Professor Stebbing is the complete opposite of what’s been reported from the tribunal,’ she daidl.
Her father consulted Professor Stebbing when he had advanced oesophageal cancer.
‘He went to him as the last-chance saloon,’ says Harriet. ‘My father died, as was not unexpected, in October 2012. But Professor Stebbing had been very clear on the chances of the treatment working, as it was a race against time involving a very far advanced cancer.
‘My father accepted that Professor Stebbing most likely would not save him. But he wanted to go out fighting, and he got that choice,’ she says.
‘Professor Stebbing’s patients have mental capacity and are intelligent people. It’s their decision whether they want to continue with out-of-the-box treatment. That was very much my father’s approach.’
When Harriet was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer while pregnant with son, Padraic, she, too, turned to the professor.
She’d had a mastectomy and radiotherapy, ‘but after that I was on my own as far as the hospital was concerned’, she says.
‘I found it really hard to cope.’ Having lost a previous baby to stillbirth, she says: ‘I had already been parted from one child and was terrified I would leave my other children without a mother.
‘I transferred my care to Professor Stebbing and he was so amazingly kind. Every time I felt a lump he’d examine it straight away — even at weekends.
‘He’s not a friend — he’s my doctor,’ she stresses. ‘But he was kindness and empathy personified. All that time he was going through the GMC trial, but he gave no hint of that.’
The families of those treated by Professor Stebbing talk gratefully of the extra time they were able to have with their loved ones, thanks to his work.
Among them is the husband of actress Lynda Bellingham. Her widower, Michael Pattemore, told the Mail in October: ‘I feel it’s thanks to Justin I had Lynda for an extra 15 months. And for that I will always be grateful.’
Kash Kamal, a financial adviser to international health authorities, is another fan of Professor Stebbing’s care.
His wife, Sabina, was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2013, which spread to her lungs. She was written off by doctors, who wanted to put her on end-of-life palliative care and said she would last ‘only three months at most’.
In desperation, Mr Kamal consulted former colleagues at The London Clinic. ‘They all pointed to Professor Stebbing,’ he says.
The professor decided to use a cutting-edge therapy being pioneered in the U.S. but not yet in Britain. This was immunotherapy, which recruits the patient’s own immune defences to kill cancer cells.
‘Professor Stebbing wrote to my wife’s insurer, Bupa, asking it to fund new immunotherapy drugs,’ says Mr Kamal. ‘They accepted this. Afterwards, her tumours were minuscule.
‘Professor Stebbing’s care extended my wife’s life from three months to more than six years. That’s a long time for a cancer of the lung.’
At that point the couple went back to see Professor Stebbing but he said he was under investigation and could not treat her’. Sabina died in February aged 52. Her widower says: ‘I know she loved Professor Stebbing very much, and so do I.’
Mr Kamal says of the tribunal result: ‘I thought this was a disgrace. I had to do something, I posted on LinkedIn that I would protest to the GMC and quickly got 112 responses from others — senior people in huge organisations.’
There is no doubt Professor Stebbing is a caring, talented doctor. But the tribunal found in the 12 cases, his behaviour amounted to misconduct. And while ‘it was not Professor Stebbing’s intention to cause harm’, he ordered ‘futile’ treatment after ‘failing to give the desperately ill patients a realistic assessment of their prognosis’.
The tribunal, however, rejected the GMC’s suggestion he should be struck off, saying the nine-month suspension ‘would adequately and proportionately address the misconduct’, and that ‘given the particular circumstances of this case, there is a public interest in permitting Professor Stebbing to return to practice as soon as possible’.
Many others hope so, too. In his evidence, Mr Beechey-Newman said Professor Stebbing ‘has been through a personal hell during this overly protracted enquiry’.
While the result of the hearing ‘is not as bad as it could have been,’ Professor Karol Sikora, a former head of the World Health Organisation cancer programme, said: ‘I think Professor Stebbing is resilient and can recover from this, but he will never be the same again. The GMC’s process has been totally unfair and I think it’s been a witch-hunt.’
‘Deliberately selecting 12 patients from the 500-plus that were looked at was very unfair,’ he added. ‘You could do that to any doctor by picking out the few cases where the treatment just didn’t work. Today’s ruling could have a huge adverse impact on future British cancer patients.’
Asked to comment on the criticisms aired here, a GMC spokesperson said: ‘Our regulatory fitness to practice function serves to protect patients from future harm, not to punish doctors.
‘Our submission to the Tribunal for erasure [to be struck off] was made after carefully assessing the seriousness of their findings and the potential impact of the doctor’s actions on patient safety and public confidence.’
Professor Stebbing’s many supporters and medical colleagues would argue that ‘public confidence’ is exactly what he enjoys.
An Imperial spokesman said: ‘It would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.’
Five of the best post-fall and post-operation aids
If you’ve had a fall or injured a limb, you might need some help managing day-to-day activities. We asked Sammy Margo, a physiotherapist based in London, for the best gadgets to help make life easier.
HEIGHT-ADJUSTABLE STROLLEY KITCHEN TROLLEY
EXPERT VERDICT: This trolley on wheels has clip-on trays and is a great device to help you regain confidence walking around your home after a fall. You can adjust the height and the trays clip on and off so you could take your hot drink safely between rooms. I wouldn’t use this as an alternative to a walking aid as it is not designed for that, but it can help build confidence while recovering.
ETAC FOOD PREPARATION BOARD
EXPERT VERDICT: This chopping board has a vice-type adjustable system on one side that can hold and support food while you’re chopping it, allowing you to be more independent in the kitchen. This is ideal for people who have to chop or slice with one hand — due to a broken or fractured wrist, for instance.
LIMBO WATERPROOF PROTECTOR
EXPERT VERDICT: A shower cover is helpful for carrying out your usual washing routine if you’re protecting a leg wound or cast after a fall. It consists of a plastic covering with a neoprene seal (a synthetic rubber) which prevents leakage. It takes a bit of getting used to but is great for your independence, at a good price, too. As well as this one for the lower leg, there are others for different parts of the body including arms, knees and elbows. These come in several sizes, and are easy to use.
STRIDEON KNEE WALKER
To rent from £16.50 per week, strideon.co.uk
EXPERT VERDICT: Just like a scooter but with bigger wheels and with the platform around your knee height instead of being near the floor, this would be great for anyone recovering from a lower leg injury such as a broken ankle, or any foot surgery.
It can help you get around and has extra padding on the knee platform which could help avoid loading further weight on the joint.
It is lightweight, foldable and has five wheels, which makes it more stable than similar devices.
TACKLIFE FOLDABLE GRABBER PICK-UP TOOL
EXPERT VERDICT: This lightweight grabber is fantastic for anyone who can’t bend down to reach or grab items with their hands. Unlike most grabbers this one offers an extra joint in the ‘arm’.
It can bend, so you can access areas that would otherwise be more tricky to reach — such as under the bed.