Family history inspires Queen’s researcher to tackle oesophageal cancer

A leading scientist from Queen’s University Belfast has been awarded over £855,000 from Cancer Research UK to find new ways to prevent oesophageal cancer and improve survival rates.

Cancer diagnosis pathways image

The deadly disease is historically difficult to treat and has a high mortality rate.

Dr Helen Coleman, Researcher and Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Public Health and Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s University Belfast, has been granted the prestigious Cancer Research UK Career Establishment Award.

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

Dr Helen Coleman

Approximately 9,000 people in the UK and 200 people in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer every year, and less than one in five will survive for at least five years after diagnosis.  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.

Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition where some of the cells lining the food pipe have started to change is much more common.  In a small number of people (1 in 200 annually) 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 her study.

Dr Coleman 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. This was considered an extreme measure for patients who might never develop cancer but 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 now are more likely to accurately diagnose dysplasia in Barrett’s patients, and therefore potentially prevent more patients from developing oesophageal cancer.

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

She will 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.”

Sean Lennon, 68, from Portaferry, is Dr Coleman’s husband’s uncle. In 2010 he noticed he was having difficulty swallowing food and visited his GP. He was later diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and underwent chemotherapy and surgery to successfully remove a tumour in April 2011.

Mr Lennon said: “I noticed that food was not going down properly and visited the doctor who referred me for a dye test and endoscopy which confirmed cancer of the oesophagus.

“Although it was a big shock I feel fortunate that it hadn’t spread into my stomach, so I know I did the right thing by acting quickly when I noticed changes in my swallowing and I received excellent care throughout my treatment.

“It was a big operation, but I’m delighted to have responded so well to my treatment and to be able to enjoy life again. I’m so pleased that money is being invested in research in this area to help people who are affected by oesophageal cancer.”