Queen's University professor Patrick Johnston behind the fight for world-class cancer care across Europe
If Europe's 733 million citizens win the right to a world-class standard of cancer care, it will be down to the doggedness of a professor at Queen's University, writes Victoria O'Hara
Published 04/02/2014 | 10:00
Championing a Bill of Rights to transform the standard of cancer care across Europe is an ambitious vision. But for world-leading cancer researcher Professor Patrick Johnston, it is the next challenge in an already impressive career dedicated to taking on the disease.
The 55-year-old, from Co Londonderry, has always thought big and has built a worldwide reputation for Belfast as the city leading the way in the race to find a cure for cancer.
The dedication and vision of the expert from Queen's University has been heralded by fellow medical peers as the reason behind transforming cancer survival rates in Northern Ireland in the last decade.
Now the European Cancer Patient's Bill of Rights is a catalyst for change to provide every European citizen with the right to the highest standard of care.
After being approached three years ago, Professor Johnston became co-chairman of the powerful coalition of patient advocacy organisations and healthcare professionals.
The team of experts developed the Bill of Rights to address the inequalities that cancer patients in Europe face every day.
Describing cancer as "a beast", he says the way he approaches tackling the disease that claims around 8,500 lives in Northern Ireland a year is just taking "one bite at a time".
This Bill is the professor's next bite at the "beast" he has been determined to slay since becoming a doctor in the early-1980s.
Today, along with his colleagues, he will be at the European Parliament in Strasbourg to launch it.
His credentials as making Queen's a global player in medical/bio-medical research were no doubt behind the decision to approach him over the role.
Having studied at St Columb's College in Co Londonderry, he went on to study medicine, receiving a degree with distinction from University College Dublin in 1982.
He said that, at that time, he could see there was a huge need for discovering new things and doing things differently.
But the main reason he chose to specialise in searching for a cure for cancer was simply to make a difference for cancer patients.
Today, around 500 patients who attend the cancer centre in Belfast City Hospital daily receive some of the most advanced treatments; many are trials being carried out by the Cancer Centre he developed at QUB. Currently the dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at QUB, his vision for change was strengthened in 1987 when he obtained a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the United States for further clinical training in medical oncology. By 1991, he was promoted to senior investigator status at NCI.
"I gained a lot of insight and depth of training and leadership in terms of how to both optimise treatments and develop treatments through clinical trials and participation of patients within clinical trials," he said.
Returning to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, he began to establish a Comprehensive Cancer Care and Research Programme in Northern Ireland.
In 1996, he was appointed Professor of Oncology at Queen's and led the development of the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB).
It was as its director that the married father-of-four helped the centre forge ahead as a global leader with its facilities.
But how did he do this? By attracting world class researchers and helping in the development of numerous 'spin-out' companies.
He embarked on a global recruitment drive to attract the best thinkers, innovators, scientists and clinicians in the world to work at Queen's. In 2009, CCRCB was designated as a Cancer Research UK Centre.
Breakthrough after breakthrough came via his expert teams. Aggressive bowel cancer genes were identified. A Molecular Pathology Lab – the first integrated laboratory of its kind in the UK and Ireland – was also opened.
It is revolutionising cancer research and means that oncologists are now better-placed to decide on the best treatment for their patients – thanks to improved diagnoses.
This year, new trials using drugs that have been developed in Belfast will be administered to patients here – another first.
In light of his work, the founder and director of Almac Diagnostics received accolade after accolade. But it was in 2012 when he received his proudest achievement to date.
He was honoured with the Diamond Jubilee Queen's Anniversary Prize, awarded for reducing cancer mortality rates in Northern Ireland over the last decade.
He says the success was underpinned by a mixture of "best-quality care and innovative research"; key to it all is that cancer patients' needs remains at the centre.
But he insists "it was a team of people" who made the vision a reality: "It has been many, many different people. I'm delighted to see the work done for cancer patients is so much better and that is the pride that I take."
Professor Johnston's vision was no doubt key in starting a revolution in cancer treatment in Northern Ireland. In March, he will start a new job as the Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University.
But, thanks to his legacy of assembling expert teams for groundbreaking research, combined with Belfast's dominant presence on the world stage of medical research, the revolution is set to continue.
Life-changing work turns terminal illness into chronic disease
By Patrick Johnston
Every day, I am privileged to share my working environment at Queen's University with some of the most gifted and dedicated medical researchers in the world.
These are men and women who are leaders in their chosen field, devoting themselves to advancing knowledge and changing the lives of others. We can be proud of the fact that Northern Ireland's cancer survival rates have gone from the bottom of the UK league table to near the top.
This is down to a Comprehensive Cancer Care and Research Programme – a partnership between Queen's University, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Service.
The ground-breaking cancer research at Queen's makes headlines regularly: professors David Waugh and Joe O'Sullivan, whose team are identifying new combination treatments for aggressive forms of prostate cancer; Professor Tracy Robson, who has discovered a drug that can inhibit tumour growth; and Dr Sandra Van Schaeybroeck, who is leading a European-wide study into the treatment of bowel cancer.
These are just a few examples of life-changing work at Queen's. And this work is having very real results in terms of changing cancer from a terminal illness to a chronic disease.
However, citizens in some parts of Europe do not have access to high quality cancer services and are not experiencing the improved cancer care and survival rates that we are.
That is why, for the last two years, my colleagues Professor Thierry Le Chevalier, Dr Martin Murphy, Professor Mark Lawler and I have led a partnership with patient groups and international cancer specialists to develop a European Cancer Patients' Bill of Rights, which will be presented in the European Parliament today.
Today, on World Cancer Day, we insist that it is the right of every European citizen to receive an optimal level of cancer care.