Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice Chancellor of Queen's University Belfast. Image courtesy of Queen's University Belfast.
I was extremely saddened to hear of the untimely death on 4 June 2017 of Professor Patrick Johnston – an outstanding and passionate cancer researcher and clinician, formerly Director of the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB), and latterly Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast. I know his many collaborators and friends here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, felt similarly.
Paddy, as he was known to his many colleagues and friends worldwide, had a profound impact on cancer research and treatment, and his vision, energy, tenacity and highly constructive leadership are widely credited with putting Belfast where it is today on the global map. His sudden passing, at the age of 58, is a tragedy when he had so much still to give – both in his professional capacity and also in his family life, which I know he enormously valued.
I’m very proud to have been able to count Paddy as a colleague and friend. He was a great man, an outstanding cancer researcher and a highly effective scientific leader and administrator. He had an enormous ability to exert influence and get things done.
His legacy lies both in a series of major achievements within his own area of colorectal cancer research and precision medicine treatment, and also in his broader leadership roles, which he took on increasingly as his career developed.
As a researcher, Paddy published several landmark papers in translational and clinical aspects of colorectal cancer – identifying mechanisms of drug resistance in colorectal tumours and new approaches for targeting hard-to-treat cancers with mutations in the KRAS gene.
Some of Paddy’s most cited papers involve, firstly, the mechanism of action of the drug 5-fluorouracil and, secondly, the discovery, validation and implementation of biomarkers that can predict the response to cancer treatment – including showing that thymidylate synthase gene and protein expression correlate with response to 5-fluorouracil in human colorectal and gastric tumours.
Paddy’s leadership in stratified medicine for colorectal cancer was hugely important and influential. So was his influence on cancer care across Northern Ireland and latterly in Europe through his role in championing a European Bill of Rights to help transform cancer care and abolish inequalities.
Over his career, Paddy secured more than £100 million in research grants, and the innovative nature of his work led to more than 20 patents. He founded several biotechnology start-ups, including establishing with colleagues the innovative and successful company Almac Diagnostics, which specialises in diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers and really helped to push the boundaries of stratified medicine for cancer.
Paddy was born in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland and qualified in Medicine with distinction at University College Dublin in 1982. He then trained in the Mater and St James's hospitals in Dublin, specialising in oncology and haematology.
A major transformative event in Paddy’s career came in 1987 when he won a fellowship to carry out research at the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland – near Washington DC. There he worked with Carmen Allegra and many other colleagues, gaining invaluable experience in molecular pharmacology and conducting cutting-edge translational research in the optimisation of treatments through clinical trials. He was promoted to NCI Senior Investigator in 1991.
Feeling the strong call of home and family and seeing an opportunity to make a difference to cancer research and care there, Paddy returned to Northern Ireland and began in the 1990s to establish the US-like Comprehensive Cancer Centre model in Belfast as well as the Comprehensive Cancer Care and Research Programme across the province.
Paddy was appointed Professor of Oncology at Queen’s in 1996 and led the establishment of the CCRCB in Belfast, building a strong international profile and recruiting a team of excellent researchers and clinicians. He was passionate, tenacious and effective in pulling together the wide range of disciplines, skills and resources needed for success, including the establishment of a Molecular Pathology Laboratory that was the first integrated lab of its kind in the UK or Ireland.
Paddy recognised the importance of implementing not only the Comprehensive Cancer Centre model but also a highly collaborative Team Science culture. And he was generous in mentoring, and giving credit to, many colleagues who went on to develop successful careers of their own.
I had the honour to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of the CCRCB and saw at first hand Paddy’s inspiring leadership and relentless triple focus on excellence in research, benefit for cancer patients and training the next generation. This led to Belfast being designated as a Cancer Research UK Centre in 2009 and much other success that followed.
Desire to make a difference
Alongside the research and training, Paddy was instrumental in overhauling cancer services across Northern Ireland, leading to major improvements in outcomes. And he showed real vision in driving forward the future development of precision treatment for colorectal cancer, notably through the first Medical Research Council-funded stratified medicine consortium.
In keeping with his ability to think big and effect real change, Paddy went on to become a superb Dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biological Sciences at Queen’s, introducing important modernisation and continuing the strong focus on research quality, clinical impact and training. He showed strategic vision in identifying the need for research institutes and educational schools, and addressed challenges to release funding to recruit new talent in a way that was an exemplar for all higher education institutions. He was responsible for establishing a new International Medical School at Queen’s and developing a new £175 million Institute of Health Sciences.
Given his talents, energy, determination and strong desire to make a difference, I was not surprised by Paddy’s appointment in 2014 as Vice Chancellor of Queen’s – in which role once again he was having substantial impact despite some controversy and having to deal with funding cuts.
His Vision 2020 for Queen's was a world-class international university with outstanding students and staff, and top-class facilities, conducting leading-edge research and education, focused on the needs of society. He was concentrating on increasing the number of international and postgraduate students at Queen’s and enhancing research income. He enabled a doubling of research income from £57 million to over the £100 million mark in the last three years.
Not long before his death he talked about a programme he has recently introduced and was very excited about that was aimed at increasing access to Queen’s for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Probably not so well known is the significant contribution that Paddy and cancer research and treatment made to paving the way and embedding peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday agreement signed in April 1998. Cancer was correctly seen as a problem affecting everyone and a challenge that the community could readily unite around. The Campbell Report of 1996 to which Paddy played a significant contribution provided the framework for the modernisation of cancer services in Northern Ireland, and was followed quickly thereafter by the signing of the All-Ireland Cancer Consortium with the US NCI in 1999.
These key foundations led to the major infrastructure and personnel investments between 2002-2007 that resulted in the opening of the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre in 2006 and the CCRCB in 2007. Paddy’s unique ability to understand and transcend the political situation was clearly visible by the joint attendance and demonstrable support of the First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the formal opening of CCRCB
Excellence in research, patient care and teaching
Paddy won many awards and honours. Principal among these was his proud receipt in 2012 of the Diamond Jubilee Queen’s Anniversary Prize, awarded by Her Majesty The Queen, for the Queen’s University Belfast-led Comprehensive Cancer Centre – in partnership with Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Service – for their achievement in reducing cancer mortality rates over the previous decade.
Another important award Paddy received was the 2013 Bob Pinedo Cancer Care Prize. At that time, the world-renowned US oncologist and Editor-in-Chief of The Oncologist journal, Dr Bruce Chabner, said of Paddy: “Professor Johnston is a unique physician-scientist and leader in the cancer field. He fulfils the traditional tripartite image of excellence in research, patient care and teaching, but adds the extra measure of organisational skill and personal passion in his leadership of the remarkable medical centre at Queen’s University Belfast.”.
Chabner also said: “Patrick Johnston exemplifies the caring and gifted physician and spectacular scientific leader who will carry oncology forward into the age of rational therapeutics. Since his early days of training at the National Cancer Institute, he has distinguished himself as a forceful advocate for investigation at the bedside, a commitment that has become the watchword of his stewardship of the Queen’s University medical faculty. His own work in the area of colon cancer biology and treatment sets the highest standard for his colleagues at Belfast and in the international community of cancer research.”.
Paddy was always willing to give advice and served on many influential committees, including ones for the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK among others.
In 2012, Paddy was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Medial Sciences. His citation reads: ‘Patrick Johnston is Dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast. He has led the development of cancer services in Northern Ireland for the last 15 years, creating the Belfast Clinical Cancer Centre and Cancer Research Centre. His work on the biochemical regulation and clinical relevance of thymidylate synthase and drugs that target it have had an impact on clinical development of colorectal cancer chemotherapeutic agents. He has also identified prognostic and predictive biomarkers for colorectal cancer, allowing patient stratification in clinical trials.’
A lasting legacy of world-class cancer research
When I learned that Paddy had died suddenly while cycling near his family holiday home in County Donegal, where he loved the peace and quiet, my thoughts were of course with his family – his wife, Iseult, and his four sons.
The funeral service was held in Belfast on election day last week and was attended by hundreds of people representing all domains of his life, including politicians and many from overseas.
Upon hearing the sad and shocking news of his death and also while attending the funeral, I spent some time thinking of the many years I have enjoyed working, and socialising, with Paddy. He was a great support to me in my own scientific and leadership roles and provided wise counsel whenever needed.
I have always enjoyed visiting Belfast whether to give a lecture or as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the CCRCB. Paddy was on each occasion a demanding, stimulating and at the same a cordial host and great fun to be with.
I have a vivid recollection of adjourning with Paddy, after a hard day’s work followed an excellent and convivial meal, to a small traditional bar in the centre of Belfast. There we continued our discussions about the future of cancer research and care over a pint or two of Guinness – and at one point we danced an Irish jig together to the local folk band that was playing in the pub. That’s a lovely memory of a lovely man – and a great man too.
Paddy Johnston leaves a lasting legacy of world-class cancer research, improved treatment and high-quality training – and I have no doubt that if Paddy’s model is followed these important activities will continue to go from strength to strength in Belfast in the future.
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