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Fitting tribute to cancer expert Johnston as grant ensures legacy will live on

£800k boost in battle with bowel form of killer disease


Prof Patrick Johnston

Prof Patrick Johnston

Prof Daniel Longley

Prof Daniel Longley


Prof Patrick Johnston

The lifesaving work of the late Professor Patrick Johnston will continue as scientists in Belfast embark upon research to help bowel cancer patients.

Prof Johnston - one of the world's leading experts in the disease - secured an £800,000 Cancer Research UK (CRUK) grant to fund a groundbreaking research project prior to his sudden death in June at the age of 58, it can be revealed today.

And now 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.

Professor Daniel Longley, who worked with Prof Johnston for almost two decades, explained: "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 that their application - which will be used to try and find better treatments for bowel cancer patients - was successful in April this year, but Prof Johnston, who went on to be vice chancellor of the Queen's University Belfast (QUB), never had the opportunity to advance the work. However, under Prof Longley's watch, a team of scientists from QUB, including Prof Mark Lawler and Dr Simon McDade, will use the funding to examine tumour samples from patients to try and understand why chemotherapy works for some bowel cancer sufferees, but not others. The research is supported by the Bobby Moore Fund for CRUK, which funds world class research that has the potential to make the greatest impact in making sure more people survive the disease.

In one part of the research, the scientists will look specifically at patients diagnosed with stage 2 or 3 bowel cancer - meaning the disease has not spread to other organs from the bowel. It is hoped doctors will ultimately be able to personalise the treatments they give to these patients as a result of the study, drastically cutting the number of people who endure chemotherapy, while also improving survival rates.

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Every year around 1,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Northern Ireland, and around 420 people die from the disease. Prof Longley added: "Paddy was very excited about the project, he really felt that it could make a big difference to people diagnosed with early stage colorectal cancer. We know that chemotherapy is needed for some colorectal cancer patients, however, of all the stage 2 patients treated, we know that only 3% benefit.

"If you are diagnosed with stage two colorectal cancer the prognosis is actually really good and over 80% are cured by surgery alone. There will, however, be three or four patients out of every 100 who need chemotherapy and are more at risk of having a relapse of their disease without it. We don't want to be giving chemotherapy, with all its side-effects, if it isn't going to help the person. Of course, this won't just be beneficial for the patient, it will also be beneficial for the healthcare system, which we all know is overstretched at the moment."

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

He continued: "Paddy was very supportive of me, he was inspirational and a great mentor, 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 international network of top cancer researchers was instrumental in establishing the groundbreaking research going on in Northern Ireland today.

"His loss is a terrible blow, but he also did so much for us, setting up the necessary research infrastructure here.

"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.

"My colleagues and I at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at QUB now have all the tools at our disposal to forge ahead with our research and really make a difference to cancer patients.

"In the past few months we have been trying to come to terms with his loss, but he believed wholeheartedly in this piece of work and the other projects that are ongoing in our centre.

"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 patients.

Jean Walsh, CRUK's Northern Ireland spokeswoman, said the award was the latest recognition of the excellent research taking place in Belfast.

"A truly inspiring man, Prof 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," she added.

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