Career defining award for Portaferry scientist

Career defining award for Portaferry scientist

6 February 2019

A PORTAFERRY scientist has been awarded over £855,000 from Cancer Research UK to find new ways to prevent oesophageal cancer and improve survival for the disease.

Dr Helen Coleman, who is based at Queen’s University Belfast, was granted the prestigious Cancer Research UK Career Establishment Award ahead of World Cancer Day on Monday.

She says that she has been inspired to work in cancer research after several family members were diagnosed.

Dr Coleman said: “Both my parents received cancer diagnoses but thankfully survived. I also know about the devastating impact of oesophageal cancer after three members of my husband’s family were diagnosed with the disease.

“One uncle is a survivor, after he was diagnosed early enough to be treated with surgery – but the family sadly lost his other uncle and our sister-in-law’s father to the disease, both within two years of their diagnosis.”

She added: “Every hour someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer and I feel it’s really important to support life-saving cancer research. One way to do so is by wearing a unity band to mark World Cancer Day. Every band worn and every pound donated will help us beat cancer sooner.”

Over the next six years, Dr Coleman will analyse data from around 20,000 Barrett’s oesophagus patients and over 3,000 oesophageal cancer patients.

Over 200 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in Northern Ireland every year and less than one in five will survive for at least five years after diagnosis.

Barrett’s oesophagus — a condition where some of the cells lining the food pipe have started to change — is much more common with around 900 people diagnosed here each year. In a small number of people these cells may develop into oesophageal cancer over time.

Northern Ireland has the only population register in the world of everyone in the country who has been diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus and this data will form the basis of Dr Coleman’s study.

She will investigate the impact of new endoscopic methods that have been introduced to monitor and treat Barrett’s oesophagus.

Previously, the only potential intervention for early change in Barrett’s cells — called dysplasia — was surgery, which was considered an extreme measure for patients with early changes who might never develop cancer.

In the past few years new techniques have enabled altered cells to be removed through during endoscopic examinations.

Dr Coleman will study whether the availability of these new treatments has meant that doctors are now more likely to accurately diagnose dysplasia in Barrett’s patients, and therefore potentially prevent more patients from developing oesophageal cancer.

She will also look at the effects of lifestyle factors including smoking, alcohol and nutrition, as well as the use of medications such as aspirin on the survival of oesophageal cancer patients after completing common treatments like chemotherapy and surgery.

Dr Coleman explained: “Oesophageal cancer is difficult to treat because around three quarters of cases are diagnosed at a late stage.

“It’s fantastic to be selected for this career defining award and I am excited about working to find new ways to help prevent this cancer and new treatments to help patients survive for longer.

“Belfast is the leading centre in this kind of large population study and I believe that our work can really make a difference to patients’ lives.”

Dr Coleman will work with data from the UK-wide Oesophageal Cancer Clinical and Molecular Stratification (OCCAMS) Consortium, which includes patients from Northern Ireland, for this part of the

Last year Cancer Research UK spent around £16m on Oesophageal Cancer research in the UK while over £2m was spent on cancer research in Northern Ireland. Strangford MP Jim Shannon congratulated Dr Coleman and her team in Queen’s on securing the grant.

“Dr Coleman is part of an elite Queen’s research team who have been making strides in the battle against cancer and specifically oesophageal cancer,” he said.

“Having watched three of her family members battling this disease has made her determined to find more effective treatment and hopefully a cure.”

Mr Shannon said he was confident that Dr Coleman and her team would answer the call to what he described as a “supremely difficult challenge”.

He added: “I sincerely believe that this funding will enable the battle to be fought harder and that the work done by Dr Coleman and her team will make a difference to so many.”