Healthcare news

Oesophageal cancer: Queen's University scientist wins £855k research award

Dr Helen Coleman has been granted the prestigious Cancer Research UK Career Establishment Award of over £855,000 to find new ways to prevent oesophageal cancer and improve survival for the disease 

A CO DOWN scientist has been awarded more than £855,000 from a leading charity to find new ways to prevent oesophageal cancer and improve survival rates 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 today.

The Portaferry woman said she has been inspired to work in cancer research after several family members were diagnosed.

She described being selected for the research award as “career defining”.

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.”

Every hour someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer.

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

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Over 200 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the north each 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 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.

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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 is encouraging people in Northern Ireland to support World Cancer Day on February 4 by wearing a unity Band, available in all Cancer Research UK stores and online at

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