Researchers in Galway battle against cancer on many fronts
INNOVATION PROFILE: Cancer research at NUI Galway:FOR REASONS which are still a matter of conjecture and research, the people in the west of Ireland have significantly higher rates of breast and prostate cancer than the rest of the Irish population.
So many families in the west of Ireland have been affected by these cancers that it has proved to be a catalyst for an ambitious programme of research based at NUI Galway.
NUI Galway identified biomedical science and engineering as a major priority as far back as the 1990s with a view, not to “blue-skies” thinking, but to bringing forward practical applications which will benefit people suffering from cancer and other intractable illnesses.
The National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science (NCBES) set up at the turn of the millennium is the present hub of an endeavour to understand cancer – the most malignant of all foes.
In both prostate cancer and breast cancer, two of the commonest forms of cancer in Ireland, researchers at NUI Galway are attempting to develop treatments which will go some way to treating those patients who respond poorly to existing therapies.
The teams working on cancer at NUI Galway have access to an estimated one million people through UCHG, which is one of the eight centres of excellence for cancer in Ireland and the only one in the west. There is also a well-established bio-banking system which is a valuable source of tissue for testing new therapies.
The scale of the ambition in biomedicine is exemplified in plans for a €11.5 million Clinical Research Facility/Translational Research Facility in a four-storey building on the grounds of UCHG, construction on which is due to start this year.
It will ensure that patients get access to the newest treatments being developed locally.
A sign of NUI Galway’s growing success in the field of cancer research is the recent award given by the Irish Cancer Society to Dr Róisín Dwyer for her work in developing stem cells which carry cancer drugs to the site of breast tumours.
Successful experiments with cancer cells in the laboratory on mice have shown that the stem cells deliver the drugs to the site of the tumour successfully. Such a breakthrough, if repeated on humans, could lead to breast cancer therapies which are less invasive and more successful than current therapies.
Dr Dwyer’s team can see the drug is successful using an imaging system developed in partnership with the University of Arizona.
The approach has been shown to reduce tumours to a fifth of their original size in mice and though a human treatment is a long way off, there have been no side-effects at all.
Galway has long had a tradition in breast-cancer research, stretching back to the foundation of the National Breast Cancer Research Institute (NBCRI) in the city more than 20 years ago.
This was set up by a group of volunteers at a time when breast cancer was a much more deadly disease than it is now, although it is still a major killer.
Like other Irish universities, NUI Galway has developed a tight-knit approach between town and gown, but it is not just the town of Galway but the whole region that is involved.
Recently, the NBCRI handed over a cheque for €1 million for the Clinical Research Facility. Money has been raised from many quarters, ranging from individuals who just want to help out to the Taoiseach, who has participated in many fundraising events.