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€11.9 million SFI research collaboration targets precision oncology

Irish Charity, Industry and University sector combine forces to improve cancer patient outcomes

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys TD, today announced an €11.9 million research collaboration in the field of precision oncology, which is supported by the Science Foundation Ireland Strategic Partnership Programme.

Precision Oncology Ireland is a consortium of five Irish universities, six Irish cancer research charities, and ten companies aiming to develop new diagnostics and therapeutics for the personalised treatment of cancer.

Precision (or ‘personalised’) medicine uses data about a person’s genes (genomics), along with additional information on their cancer, to understand the unique pathways of a disease or treatment response in that person. With this new science, doctors can prescribe the right treatment in a timely fashion, saving the wasted resources and time our current ‘trial and error’ method incurs, while greatly improving response rates.

Cancer survivor and patient advocate Ramon Whelan spoke of the importance of this game-changing research for patient’s lives: “I’m delighted to see researchers, charities and industry coming together in Ireland to focus as a group on the problems in cancer treatments. Cancer patients want to become more involved in their own treatment decisions, and more personalised diagnostics and treatments are essential for this to happen.”

The initiative is supported by a €5 million Government investment through the Science Foundation Ireland Strategic Partnership Programme, matched by a €6.9 million investment from the charity and industry partners making up the Precision Oncology Ireland Consortium - the first time that researchers, charities and industry have combined forces in this way.

Making the announcement at UCD, the lead academic partner in the consortium, Minister Humphreys TD said: “I am delighted to announce this significant step forward for cancer research in Ireland. This innovative programme has the potential to make a real difference to future treatment options available for cancer patients in this country. Precision Oncology Ireland is a significant investment, not only from Government, but also from the charity and industry partners in the programme, which is, without a doubt, a testament to their conviction that this initiative will lead to the development of new cancer treatments. I look forward to seeing the impact that this research programme will have for patients and our healthcare system in the future.”

Speaking at the launch, the Director of Precision Oncology Ireland, Professor Walter Kolch said: “Precision Oncology Ireland is a vision come true. It unites the top cancer research experts in Ireland, the leading cancer charities, and companies at the cutting edge of diagnostics and drug discovery. We believe that this unique consortium lays out the blueprint for how cancer research and cancer care will look in Ireland in the 21st century.”

“In Precision Oncology Ireland, we will use cutting-edge technologies to generate unique genetic and molecular profiles for each patient’s cancer. Our key competitive advantage lies in the innovative computational methods we use to make sense of these profiles, and decipher what drives each individual cancer. The results of this programme will be better diagnostics, personalised cancer treatment, and faster drug discovery and development.”

The Deputy Director of the programme, Professor William Gallagher, hopes that this programme will allow cancer patients to benefit from research advances at an earlier stage: “We believe that Precision Oncology Ireland will accelerate the development of new diagnostics and therapies for cancer, and allow these advances to reach cancer patients in Ireland earlier. We will also involve patients in this work from the beginning, to ensure that their voice is heard in determining the most relevant research priorities.” 

In Ireland, more than 40,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Precision approaches to oncology give hope of improving cancer patients response rates and survival, reducing side-effects from therapy, and shortening hospital stays, balancing out any increased cost to the healthcare system. The National Cancer Strategy (2017-2026) called for the introduction of precision diagnostics and therapeutics into frontline cancer care.

Welcoming the initiative, Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General, Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, said: “SFI’s Strategic Partnership Programme aims to foster partnerships across academia, industry and charity to address key research questions and enhance the competitiveness of our economy. Ireland has unique and world-leading expertise in precision oncology. This transformative research programme will harness that expertise to enable real progress in personalised medicine for cancer patients, allowing us to take a leadership position in this important area of healthcare.”

Professor Kolch added: “A significant proportion of our funding is down to the generosity of the Irish public in donating and fundraising, via the participation of six of the leading cancer charities in Ireland, the first time they have come together to support a programme of this scale. We want to ensure that their hard work delivers results for cancer patients in Ireland.”

ENDS

For further information, please contact: Alva O'Cleirigh, Communications Manager, SFI

Notes for Editors

Precision Oncology Ireland is a consortium which includes five Irish universities [University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, University College Cork and National University of Ireland, Galway]; six Irish charities [National Breast Cancer Research Institute, Breast Cancer Ireland, Breakthrough Cancer Research, Irish Cancer Society, National Children’s Research Centre, and The Oesophageal Cancer Fund]; and ten industry partners [Helsinn Birex, Bayer Healthcare, AstraZeneca, Oncomark Ltd., miR Scientific, Phion Therapeutics, Celgene Institute for Translational Research Europe, Cell Stress Discoveries Ltd., Fosun Orinove, and Genomics Medicine Ireland]. The Consortium is part-funded by Science Foundation Ireland under their Strategic Partnership Programme.

The Principal Investigators on the programme are Prof. Walter Kolch, Director (UCD); Prof. William Gallagher, Deputy Director (UCD); Prof. Helen Roche (UCD); Dr. Mark Tangney (UCC); Prof. Leonie Young (RCSI); Prof. Tracey Robson (RCSI); Prof. Bryan Hennessy (RCSI); Prof. Darran O’Connor (RCSI); Prof. Michael Kerin (NUIG); Prof. Afshin Samali (NUIG), Dr. Eva Szegezdi (NUIG); Dr. Róisín Dwyer (NUIG); Dr. Adrienne Gorman (NUIG);Prof. Jacintha O’Sullivan (TCD); Prof. Maeve Lowery (TCD).

The outcomes of this research programme will range from diagnostic tests for cancer based on personal molecular markers, novel drugs which specifically target cancer cells, and improved synergistic drug combinations. The programme will also provide key infrastructural supports to researchers, co-ordinating access to tumour biobanks, and allowing access to state-of-the-art technologies.

Prof. Walter Kolch from University College Dublin is the Director of Precision Oncology Ireland. He is also Director of Systems Biology Ireland (ucd.ie/sbi), a research centre focused on understanding the complex interactions happening within cells. A leading international proponent of precision medicine, Prof. Kolch is recognised worldwide for his cutting-edge research using systems approaches to understand signalling networks. He is ranked 2nd in the world in precision oncology on Google Scholar.

Prof. William Gallagher from University College Dublin is the Deputy Director of Precision Oncology Ireland. He is also Director of the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research (ucd.ie/conway), and former Director of the Irish Cancer Society Collaborative Cancer Research Centre BREAST-PREDICT, a research programme focused on precision medicine for breast cancer, which ran from 2013 to 2019.

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