Cancer Research UK award aids Derry doctor's vital research into role of heart medication in radiotherapy

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A £35,000 award from Cancer Research UK, is to fund Derry Doctor Gerard Walls’ research into whether medicines regularly used today to treat people with cardiac conditions could, in the future, protect the heart for some people during cancer treatment.

“Preliminary results are encouraging,” he said, “showing that we may be able to use a heart medicine to help keep our patients’ hearts safe during radiotherapy to the chest.

“I am delighted to have received this funding from Cancer Research UK, which means we will be able to do further testing of this medicine, and ultimately find out if this is a treatment we should give to patients with lung cancer.

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“Most patients diagnosed with lung cancer can't have an operation due to either the tumour being in a difficult-to-access location, or because they are not well enough for surgery,” he added, “so radiotherapy is the gold standard treatment in this scenario, affecting 12,000 people per year in the United Kingdom”.

Doctor Gerard Walls.Doctor Gerard Walls.
Doctor Gerard Walls.

Dr Walls went on to explain, “There is a small risk that when the cancer is near to the heart, radiotherapy can cause some damage for some patients, even with the really accurate treatment that we have available at both cancer centres in Northern Ireland.

"There is currently a lack of options for protecting the heart, but this research might lead to a new useful, safe and cost-effective option. If we confirm the treatment to be useful, we will proceed to research in patients.

“Ultimately, we hope to improve the cardiac health of patients with lung cancer and this could also help patients with other types of tumours inside the chest too, such as oesophageal cancer.

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The preliminary results that Dr Walls and his science colleagues Dr Mihaela Ghita-Pettigrew and Dr Karl Butterworth have generated have been selected for a presentation at the leading European radiotherapy conference this summer, which happens to be in Glasgow.

The full results of the work should be available in early 2025.

“Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has been a key player in the development of radiotherapy over the years, which approximately half of patients receive during their cancer journey,” said Dr Walls.

“For example, trials CRUK has helped fund include many that have re-shaped how breast cancer can be treated more effectively. Breast cancer is actually another area where the heart has been highlighted as an important issue, and over the last decade, by taking special measures at the time of the radiotherapy planning scan as standard breast cancer has been made safer for the heart.

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Dr Walls (34) who went to St Mary's Grammar School in Magherafelt, and studied Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, currently works jointly between the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre and the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research, Queen’s University Belfast.

He first became interested in research when he had the opportunity to help with a clinical trial as a medical student.

He worked in London for two years, including at the Royal Marsden Hospital, before taking up his current position in Belfast.

In addition to his own research, Dr Walls is also co-investigator in a CRUK-funded clinical trial, (CORNCORDE) investigating if giving targeted cancer drugs alongside radiotherapy can improve treatment outcomes for people with lung cancer.

Last year Dr Walls was awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship, which led to him joining the world-leading Cardio-Oncology research team at Washington University in St. Louis, USA.

Renowned for its lung cancer radiotherapy clinical trials and research, this allowed Dr Walls to use patient data, undertake laboratory experiments and observe the infrastructure at this world-leading hospital – and he has brought a wealth of knowledge, experience and connections back to Northern Ireland.

The annual conference of the British Thoracic Oncology Group (BTOG) will take place in Belfast this week. BTOG is the leading multidisciplinary organisation focussed on improving the care of lung cancer in the UK. Dr Walls has been invited to give a lecture on maximising the safety of radiotherapy in patients with lung cancer at the conference, on Wednesday, April 17.

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