Putting our region's cancer needs first

Prof. Sarah Coupland

George Holt Chair in Pathology, Honorary Consultant Histopathologist Molecular and Clinical Cancer Medicine

Prof. Sarah Coupland

Sarah Coupland is a Consultant Histopathologist at the University of Liverpool. She is a specialist in the diagnosis of ocular cancer and is the Director of North West Cancer Research Centre.


Q: How long have you been a scientist?

A: I was born in Sydney, Australia, and undertook my general medical training at the University of New South Wales, before doing a PhD at the University of Sydney. In 1994, I worked with the world-renowned eye pathologist, Professor William Lee in Glasgow, who confirmed my resolve to pursue this subspecialty. In 1995, I started my General and Specialist Pathology Training in Berlin, where I lived for a further 10 years with my husband, Professor Heinrich Heimann. We moved to Liverpool and I commenced working as a Consultant Pathologist in 2006.


Q: What is your role?

A: I run the Eye Pathology service at the Royal Liverpool Hospital. The hospital has one of only three super-referral centres for eye cancer in the UK and I therefore see a large number of samples to diagnose. I also have a research group trying to understand the biology of these cancers and how we can improve treatment. Finally, I am the Director of the Cancer Research Centre here in Liverpool, which is sponsored by NWCR.


Q: What are you working on at the moment?

A: Our focus is on Intraocular Melanoma. This is a condition where cancer cells form in the tissues of the middle layer of the eye, called the uvea. Unlike other types of melanoma, the development of this tumour has no relationship to sun exposure, and the causes are not really known.

Unfortunately around 50% of patients develop secondary cancers in the liver, and this is then very difficult to treat. Through our research and testing of the initial eye tumour, we can now tell which patients are more likely to develop such secondary tumours, and recommend them being monitored very closely through blood tests and MRI liver scans. This leads to the secondary tumours being detected earlier. The problem is that imaging of the liver usually only detects the tumour cells when there are a large number of them there.

So, our aim now is to detect what we call the ‘circulating tumour cells’ in the blood, because this means we can treat the cancer cells before they reach the liver and form these secondary tumours. This is very advanced and sophisticated personalised treatment, and we hope is a very exciting breakthrough.

Another area I’m working on is trying to better understand why the liver is the favoured organ in the body for uveal melanoma spread, and how we can interrupt this ‘eye-liver axis’ to cure patients. To do this, I’m collaborating with a group across Europe, called “UMCure2020”.



Q: How did you feel when your work led to this breakthrough?

A: This is quite a rare cancer and drug companies haven’t always wanted to invest in it in the past, but now that the field as a whole is making significant progress and inroads into understanding uveal melanomas via projects like UMCure2020, there is a real momentum with lots of enthusiasm and interest. It’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of this work.


Q: What drives you in your job?

A: The meetings I have with our patient groups. They are so supportive of our work. They know they are not being ignored, and that significant progress is now being made in this area. We certainly haven’t cured metastatic uveal melanoma, but step-by-step we are getting there.


Q: What do you do outside the lab?

A: I have triplets, Amelie, Zoe and Karl who are now teenagers, but they keep me very busy. I also enjoy running and cycling, and I took part in Cycle of Hope to raise money for North West Cancer Research. I also love to travel, and listening to audio books and classical music.


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