Late Derry professor secured £800,000 for new cancer research

The late Professor Patrick Johnston. (Photo Queen's University Belfast)
The late Professor Patrick Johnston. (Photo Queen's University Belfast)

The life-saving work of the late Professor Patrick Johnston is set to continue as scientists embark on research to help bowel cancer patients with funding he secured prior to his passing.

Prof. Johnston – a native of Derry’s Waterside and who was one of the world’s leading cancer experts – secured an £800,000 Cancer Research UK (CRUK) grant to fund a ground-breaking research project prior to his sudden death in June.

A former colleague has spoken of his determination to take forward the project in tribute to Prof Johnston, who spent his career working to ease the suffering of cancer patients around the world.

Cancer research scientist, Professor Daniel Longley, who worked with Prof Johnston for almost two decades, said: “We are all much poorer, both personally and professionally, without him.

“He has left a tremendous legacy and with that, we feel a sense of responsibility to fulfil his vision to improve the outcomes for cancer patients. It is, however, a great pity that he won’t be here to see the results of this project.”

Professors Johnston and Longley made a joint application to the CRUK Programme Awards in Autumn last year.

They found out they had been successful in their bid for the cash - which will be used to try and find better treatments for bowel cancer patients – in April this year, but Prof Johnston never had the opportunity to advance the work.

However, under Prof Longley’s watch, a team of Queen’s University scientists will use the funding to examine tumour samples from patients to try and understand why chemotherapy works for some bowel cancer patients but not others.

“Although we are poorer both professionally and personally without him, we now have all the tools at our disposal to forge ahead with cancer research and really make a difference,” Professor Longley said. “It’s so important to stress that Paddy put us on the map, we have great potential here still and we’re here to stay in terms of cancer research.

“The past few months, we have been trying to come to terms with his loss, but he believed wholeheartedly in this piece of work. The best tribute we can give to Paddy is to make sure we fulfil his legacy and try our hardest to make a difference for the patients.”

CRUK Programme Awards provide long-term support to scientists to carry out research that will help them better understand cancer and bring benefits to cancer patients.

Matt Kaiser, the charity’s head of discovery research, said: “This work will build on Professor Johnston’s phenomenal legacy in precision medicine – which CRUK has supported for many years through our Programme Awards – helping to get the best treatments to patients sooner and sparing them unnecessary side effects.”

Jean Walsh, CRUK’s Northern Ireland spokeswoman, said: “A truly inspiring man, Professor Johnston’s passion for cancer research and the cancer services people in Northern Ireland should receive were high on his priority list and we are indebted to him for his tireless work.

“This award is recognition of the fantastic research taking place in Belfast.”

“One in two of us in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in our lives, but the good news is more people are surviving the disease now than ever before.

“Cancer survival in the UK has doubled since the early 1970s and CRUK’s work has been at the heart of that progress.”

Every year, around 1,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Northern Ireland and around 420 people die from the disease.

The scientists will look specifically at patients diagnosed with stage two bowel cancer – meaning the disease remains in situ and has not spread to the lymph nodes.

It is hoped doctors will ultimately be able to personalise the treatments they give to bowel cancer patients as a result of the study – drastically cutting the number of people who endure chemotherapy, while also improving survival rates.

Prof Longley said: “Paddy was very excited about the project, he really felt like it could make a big difference to people diagnosed with stage two colorectal cancer.

“We know that chemotherapy is needed for some colorectal cancer patients, however, of all the stage two patients treated, we know that only 3% benefit. If you are diagnosed with stage two colorectal cancer, the prognosis is really good and up to 80%, or maybe more, are cured by surgery alone.

“There will be four or five patients out of every 100 who need chemotherapy and are more at risk of having a relapse of their disease without it.

“We want to develop a test to identify those patients who should be given chemotherapy.”

Prof Longley returned to Northern Ireland in 1999, which is when he first began working with Prof Johnston.

He continued: “Paddy was very supportive of me, he was inspirational and a great mentor to me, and the fact he was internationally recognised really helped to shine the light on what we are doing here in Belfast.

“To be able to use Paddy’s name on the international stage, the network that he had established, has helped to establish the wonderful research going on in Northern Ireland today.

“His loss is a terrible blow but he also did so much for us, he set up much of the infrastructure in Belfast where the research is done.

“He wasn’t just responsible for improving the research done here, he really brought treatments in Northern Ireland up to a par with the rest of the UK and Europe.