Tribute to Professor Sverre Lie

Professor Sverre Lie was one of the first paediatric oncologists in Norway and was awarded Honorary Fellowship of the College. Professor Sir Alan Craft looks back on his career as a founder member and later President of the Nordic Society of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology.
Professor Sverre Lie

Professor Sverre Lie died peacefully at the age of 85 on March 2023 at his home in Oslo surrounded by his family. He was one of the first paediatric oncologists in Norway and in 1982 was a founder member and later President of the Nordic Society of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology (NOPHO) which covered all Nordic countries. He joined the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP) in the 70s and became Treasurer for four years then President from 1996 to 1999. In 2004 he was the host for the 36th annual SIOP meeting in Oslo.

He was born in Oslo in 1938 but at the age of four moved to Sulitjelma in the far north of the country. He returned to Oslo after the war where he was educated, graduating from Oslo University in 1966 adding a PhD in molecular genetics in 1966. Genetics was his first interest and he spent time with the world famous geneticist Victor McCusick in Baltimore. He had the choice of pursuing a career in genetics or going into the clinic. Both were very exciting areas with amazing new developments in each area. He chose to pursue paediatrics and then paediatric oncology. Along the way he met Kari Kveim, a medical student, in the hospital canteen. She was the daughter of Morten Kveim who in 1941, developed the Kveim test for sarcoidosis. Sverre and Kari married in December 1967 and spent their honeymoon in Jordan where they both had their first experience of caring for children in a developing country.

As a paediatric oncologist he took a special interest in acute myeloid leukaemia which had not responded as well as lymphoblastic leukaemia when the chemotherapy revolution came along. He and his colleagues took a different approach and along with others in NOPHO they established a new standard of treatment which remains the basis of current treatment worldwide. The trial was published in the prestigious journal Leukaemia and is still regularly cited.

He always had an eye on what could be done for children with cancer in the less well developed parts of the world where there was usually little or no access to any treatment. At the annual SIOP meeting in Hannover in 1992, the host, Hansjorg Rheim raised money to invite young doctors from the developing world. As a result of this initiative, Paediatric Oncology in the Developing Countries (PODC) was born. In 1994 had met with Dr Merhaban Singh who was President of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics and he described the dismal plight of children with cancer in India and asked Sverre whether SIOP could help. When Sverre became President of SIOP he convened a small and very important meeting at the Nuffield Foundation in London where he brought together a few enthusiastic young doctors from mainly India and Africa. Sverre asked them what they wanted. The Indians said they wanted training for their young doctors. And the Africans wanted cost effective treatments for Burkitt’s lymphoma. At medical school, Sverre had been a classmate and friend of Gro Harlem Bruntland who had gone on to become not only Prime Minister of Norway, but also Director General of WHO. Sverre used his undoubted charm and persuaded her to give a grant of 100000$ to begin the PODC work.

In India this led to several workshops beginning in 1995 to develop training materials to train the trainers. This has been hugely successful and India and the surrounding countries now have networks providing excellent care for children with cancer. Sverre was especially pleased when he heard that one of the major hospitals had started a late effects clinic. That meant that children were surviving long enough to get late effects!

In Africa grants were given to develop a cost effective treatment for Burkitt’s lymphoma which had a dismal prognosis. In developed countries high survival rates could be achieved at a cost of around 45000$. Peter Hesseling from South Africa developed a slimmed down protocol which cost 50$ for each patient and survival rates of almost 40% were possible. This included supportive care. Again Sverre was delighted to hear that the spin off from the Malawi Burkitt’s protocol was that the hospital had to improve their general paediatric care.

After retirement he continued his work in global health and for ten years was a senior adviser to the Prime Minister in the field of maternal, newborn and child health and travelled the globe. In 2018-19 he was a special adviser on the health of refugees in Norway. In 2001 he was appointed Knight, first class, of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav.

Like many Norwegians Sverre had a second home and his was in the Lofoten Islands way above the Arctic Circle. He spent most of his holidays there along with his four children and grandchildren of whom he was devoted and very proud. He was an excellent cross country skier and for many years completed the Birkebeiner, a 54km ski race across the mountains on the third Saturday in March. This was often followed by a SIOP board meeting in Amsterdam where he would report back on whether he had made the age related mark which he did on 15 occasions.

Sverre was both an inspiration and a guiding hand to those who followed in his footsteps to support the work of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP). Kathie Pritchard -Jones (FRCPCH) who was SIOP scientific committee chair during Sverre’s time organising the 2004 congress in Oslo, recalls how much she learnt from him about supporting the global childhood cancer community and the importance of friendship networks. The SIOP chamber music group formed in Sverre’s time was a lovely example of this. His lifetime commitment to improving outcomes for children with cancer and their families inspired her to run for SIOP President.

He was a kind gentle man who loved children. He was an excellent pianist and a highlight of the Oslo SIOP meeting was in The grand Opera House where he gave a virtuoso performance of Greig’s Wedding Breakfast at Troldhagen. He had played the same piece at the RCPCH annual meeting a few years earlier.